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Michelle O’Neill insists no threat to power-sharing after Donaldson resignation

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill has insisted there is no threat to power-sharing after the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Jeffrey Donaldson resigned over allegations of historical sexual offences.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey quit as DUP leader on Friday and was also suspended by the party.

It is understood that Sir Jeffrey is charged with one count of rape, one count of gross indecency, and several counts of indecent assault.

The deal that restored Stormont, was hinged on the backing of the Sir Jeffrey as all parties in Northern Ireland must agree to power-sharing under the Good Friday Agreement.

“It’s a very challenging time, not least for those people that have come forward to the police,” Ms O’Neill told Sky News.

She added: “I’ve spoken to the new interim leader of the DUP, Gavin Robinson. I’ve also spoken to my executive colleagues, the political leaders around the executive table, just in terms of the work that we have to do, that we need to prioritise cohesion and leadership through these times.”

She then went on to clarify that the power-sharing would continue, adding: “My priority is to make that power sharing work, my priority is to work with the other political leaders around the executive table.

“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.”

Earlier, deputy DUP first minister Emma Little-Pengelly said she was “devastated” following the revelations over Sir Jeffrey.

It came after interim leader Gavin Robinson sent a message to colleagues offering reassurances over the future direction of the DUP as he insisted the party was “not about any one individual”.

Meanwhile, veteran DUP MP Sammy Wilson admitted the party had been plunged into “turmoil”.

Mr Wilson gave his full backing to Mr Robinson, insisting the DUP should not be distracted by a leadership contest this side of the general election.

Ms Little-Pengelly and her Stormont counterpart, Ms O’Neill, have received significant praise for their stewardship of the powersharing executive since it was re-established in February after a two-year impasse.

In a statement on social media on Saturday, the DUP MLA said she remained committed to delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey’s endorsement was pivotal to the deal that restored the devolved institutions and his sudden departure, and the manner of it, has prompted fresh questions over the future stability of the fledgling administration.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly speaking to the media after Queen Camilla attended an event hosted by the Queen's Reading Room to mark World Poetry Day at Hillsborough Castle in Belfast, during her two-day official visit to Northern Ireland. Picture date: Thursday March 21, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story ROYAL Camilla. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly vowed to work to provide stability following the shock resignation of her party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.(Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

It is further understood that in a letter to party officers informing them of the allegations he made clear he would be “strenuously contesting” all charges against him.

The 61-year-old politician, who was arrested and charged on Thursday, will appear in court in Newry, Co Down, on 24 Apri in relation to the non-recent sexual allegations. He travelled to London early on Friday following his release from Antrim police station on Thursday night.

A 57-year-old woman has been charged with aiding and abetting offences in relation to the same police investigation.

On Saturday, police issued a warning against speculation on the case, with officers highlighting that it was a criminal offence to post or publish anything that might lead to the identification of alleged victims in sexual offences investigations.

Ms Little-Pengelly was chosen by Sir Jeffrey as the DUP nominee for deputy First Minister.

“I know many, many people are deeply shocked and devastated by this news, as I am,” she said in her statement.

“Victims must always have the best opportunity for justice. This must be fully respected and supported.

“My thoughts are with those suffering who have put their faith in the criminal justice system. Protecting the integrity of that process necessitates significant restrictions on what can be said. I have faith in our justice system.

“I want to assure you that I am determined to do all I can to provide stability. I will be working closely with our new interim party leader Gavin Robinson and my colleagues in the time ahead to continue the work of tackling the big issues faced by Northern Ireland.

“There is much to do. We are determined to deliver for all of the people of Northern Ireland.”

East Belfast MP Mr Robinson, who was DUP deputy leader, was unanimously appointed interim leader in an emergency meeting of the party hierarchy on Friday.

In an Easter message to the party faithful, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Robinson wrote: “Our thoughts are with those suffering and who have put their faith in our criminal justice system.

“The police service and courts must be allowed to complete their processes without interference. Nothing that any of us say or do, must in any way compromise that process.

“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.

“The Democratic Unionist Party is 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.

“I am honoured to take up the position of interim leader of the party. I wish you all a happy and peaceful Easter break.”

East Antrim MP Mr Wilson said the party had to regroup and focus on the election.

“We were all shocked, this just came totally out of the blue,” he told Cool FM news.

“We found out about it, I think, just the night before. We called a meeting then first thing in the morning and all of us were kind of gobsmacked that this had happened because there was absolutely no indication that there was anything of this nature about to break.”

He added: “Any party which is hit with this kind of shock is bound to be in turmoil.

“On Thursday we thought we were getting prepared for a general election. We were going to talk about the kind of themes for the general election, that was really what the focus was, and then suddenly you’re thrown totally off course.”

Mr Robinson had been a key ally of Sir Jeffrey and was fully behind his decision to back a Government deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements that saw the DUP end its two-year boycott of powersharing at Stormont and return to the Assembly and Executive in February.

Mr Wilson is among several high-profile party members who have been openly critical of the Government measures, insisting they have not gone far enough to remove the so-called Irish Sea border.

Despite their different views on the deal, Mr Wilson made clear he was fully supportive of Mr Robinson leading their party into the general election.

“Our next focus has to be the general election,” he said.

“We’re going to have a general election in which unionism is going to be under huge threat.

“I’ve no doubt that the events of this week will galvanise those anti-unionist parties – the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Alliance (party) will see that we’ve been weakened by this. They’ll make a big push.

“There’s division within unionism, which is going to be difficult, as well. And this is an election where I know Sinn Fein’s aim is to become the biggest party for the third time, the third election (in a row) in Northern Ireland, and then of course, if there’s a new Labour government, they’ll push for a referendum (on Irish unity) etc.

“So we know how crucial this election is and, therefore, we’re going to focus now on Gavin getting our message across that, look, there’s a grave threat to the Union in this election, and we’ve got to get unionists settled and galvanised and around the party, the only unionist party that can really successfully steer a way through this election.”

Mr Wilson added: “We’re not going to start focusing now on a leadership election.

“The fact that we chose (Mr Robinson) unanimously shows that there’s a confidence that he can take us through these difficult circumstances. And, of course, we’ll all rally behind him and give him whatever support he needs.”

Sir Jeffrey’s membership of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has also been suspended following the charges.

The former leader’s website and social media accounts, including X, Facebook and Instagram, have all been deleted.

Friday’s shock announcement came just weeks after the long-standing MP made the decision to return the party to devolution in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey, who has had an almost 40-year career in politics, became DUP leader in July 2021.

His career started with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and in 1985, aged 22, he was the youngest person to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

His relationship with former UUP leader David Trimble deteriorated when he led a walkout of the 1998 peace talks after opposing the early release of republican and loyalist prisoners.

He left the UUP to join the DUP in January 2004.

He was recognised by the late Queen in her 2016 Birthday Honours and was given a knighthood.

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