Jeffrey Donaldson: Stability at Stormont is my priority, says O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill is Northern Ireland's first minister [PA Media]
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Northern Ireland's First Minister Michelle O'Neill has said she is determined the devolved assembly and executive will continue to function.

It comes after Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson resigned after he was charged with rape and other historical sexual offences on Thursday.

He has said he will be strenuously contesting the charges.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly also called for stability.

Ms O'Neill is deputy leader of Sinn Féin, which shares power with the DUP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party in the executive.

The assembly and executive at Stormont were suspended for two years and only returned in February after the DUP ended its boycott - which it began in a row over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Speaking to Sky News, Ms O'Neill said she spoke to the leaders of the other executive parties on Friday, as well as DUP interim leader Gavin Robinson.

"My priority is to make that power sharing work, my priority is to work with the other political leaders around the executive table," she said.

"That was why I thought it was important yesterday to reach out to each of the political leaders to talk about the need for cohesion, to talk about the need for leadership and to talk about the delivery that we now need to get on with in terms of the executive itself."

Mrs Little-Pengelly, who is a DUP member of the assembly and became deputy first minister in February, posted a statement on Facebook on Saturday in which she said she was "deeply shocked and devastated" by the allegations.

In her statement, she said she would be working closely with Mr Robinson as interim DUP leader to "continue the work of tackling the big issues faced by Northern Ireland".

She added that her thoughts were with those "who have put their faith" in the criminal justice system.

Her remarks echoed those of Mr Robinson who sent an internal newsletter to all DUP members on Saturday morning.

Mr Robinson was unanimously appointed as DUP interim leader by the party officers on Friday

In the memo, he said the police service and courts "must be allowed to complete their processes without interference".

"Nothing that any of us say or do, must in anyway compromise that process," he wrote.

"There will be some who will attempt to score cheap political points, but I know that colleagues and friends across Northern Ireland will ignore the noise and focus on what really matters."


Analysis

This is certainly not the Easter weekend anyone in Northern Ireland politics saw coming.

Just over 24 hours since the bombshell broke, we're now seeing a drip feed of reaction from some of the DUP's most senior members.

It is no coincidence that much of Emma Little-Pengelly's statement mirrored - and in some parts word-for-word - the response from Gavin Robinson.

The party's interim leader and the deputy first minister - both close confidantes of Sir Jeffrey - have a massive and unexpected challenge on their hands.

Gavin Robinson's sole interview with one broadcaster yesterday was followed up today with a memo to all DUP members in a bid to reassure the party and keep everyone on message.

As in a crisis management situation as serious and legally sensitive as this one, the DUP will want to keep control of the narrative in the days ahead.

So far there is no sign of any division within party ranks.

By carefully managing media appearances and statements, the DUP will hope to keep it that way, conscious of the electoral obstacles that lie ahead.

The fact that the Sinn Féin first minister has also added her voice today in a bid to make it feel like business as usual at Stormont should not be lost either.


'Ongoing commentary'

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) issued a statement in reaction to social media commentary following the resignation of Sir Jeffrey.

The PSNI statement does not name the former DUP leader but police say they are "aware of ongoing commentary on social media platforms" following the arrest and charges of a 61-year-old man in relation to non-recent sexual offences.

It goes on to remind social media users and news editors that "in investigations of this kind, victims are given complete anonymity by law unless they choose to waive that themselves".

"The publication of any information which is likely to lead to the identification of victims is a criminal offence, and can be investigated accordingly," it says.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been charged with rape and other historical sexual offences [PA Media]

Mr Robinson went on to say that the DUP was "not about any one individual".

"We are a party of MPs, MLAs, councillors, and scores of dedicated members across all parts of Northern Ireland.

"We exist to build a better and stronger Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom."

In a statement, the DUP said Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had confirmed that he had been charged with allegations of an historical nature and was stepping down as DUP leader.

The party's officers suspended Mr Donaldson from membership, pending the outcome of a judicial process.

Sir Jeffrey's letter to the DUP said he would be strenuously contesting the charges.

A 57-year-old woman has also been charged with aiding and abetting in connection with the alleged offences.

They were both arrested on Thursday morning by PSNI detectives and were questioned before being charged on Thursday night.

He and the 57-year-old woman are due to appear in court in April.