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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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What we CAN tell you about the arrest of DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson

First, an essential ground rule: Jeffrey Donaldson is innocent until proven guilty. So too is his wife Eleanor, accused of aiding and abetting. Which is a shame because I know more about the charges of rape and other historical sexual offences than I can reveal here. Your esteemed Editor and I risk jail time for sub judice if I did (though if we shared a cell it might be rather fun!)

 

So here are a few facts that it is safe to publish. With the approval of the PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher the couple were arrested on Thursday, March 28 after that old favourite, the 6am dawn raid, by PSNI officers at their home in Dromore, Co Down. No pre-arranged niceties, just a persistent ring on the intercom of the heavily-fortified electronic gates. Neither had any prior knowledge of the Easter treat in store though I understand that Donaldson had been made aware of the allegations against him early in March.

 

They were then taken separately to Antrim police station 35 miles away and put in different interview rooms in the custody suite where they were questioned simultaneously with solicitors from two unconnected firms present. Fourteen hours later they were released on bail with the condition that they must have no contact and that they live apart, Eleanor in the Dromore marital home and Donaldson at his flat in Greenwich near the O2 which, as a Westminster MP, is subsidised by us. Over the weekend neither answered approaches from reporters at either address.

 

In the space of 24 hours the life of 61-year-old Donaldson was in tatters; he is no longer leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, he was suspended as a DUP member and from the Orange Order and it is difficult to see how he can continue as MP for Lagan Valley, whether found guilty of not. That might not matter in the great scheme of things; his majority of 6,499 was looking vulnerable to the non-sectarian, middle-ground Alliance party come the general election. And if found guilty he could be stripped of his knighthood and membership of the Privy Council.

 

What is vitally important is that this seismic development must not disturb the newly renewed power sharing administration at Stormont. Both Michelle O’Neill and her DUP partner Emma Little-Pengelly have vowed it won’t as has the impressive interim DUP leader, that big bear of a man, Gavin Robinson. The DUP is at heart a religious party founded by the Rev Ian Paisley and hymns and prayers as often as not accompany its meetings. Its followers are, in the main, Presbyterian in belief and outlook. Some are even creationists.

 

The last time Donaldson was seen in public was at a cross-party ecumenical Easter concert at Stormont last Wednesday after which he was photographed with the former Eurovision winner Dana.

 

The problem for the DUP is its record as the party of the veto, indeed Donaldson led the charge on that, keeping Northern Ireland without a government for two years while he fought over the Windsor Framework. Voters, fed up with being treated with contempt, were drifting away from his party and the forthcoming general election will not see them flooding back.

 

What else do we know of the Donaldson affair? Police first heard about the allegations when two women made them to startled officers at a police station at the beginning of last month. The women’s stories relate to offences decades old. Donaldson was informed at some time in March and told nobody in his party.

 

He was born in the small fishing port of Kilkeel in the Mournes and educated locally, did not go to university and joined the Orange Order at the age of 16. He was once an assistant to Enoch Powell in his spell as Unionist MP for South Down in the 1980s. At that time the young Jeffrey Donaldson sported an ear ring which prompted a friend who knew him to say he never trusted him from that point on!

 

The couple married in 1987 and have two daughters, Claire and Laura. The elder values her privacy and campaigned for Pro-Choice  in the abortion debate which convulsed the DUP in 2016 while her father voted against any easing of province’s ban. Her younger sister, a nurse, was married three years ago to Philip Kennedy, son of the chairman of the rival Ulster Unionists.


Jeffrey Donaldson insists theirs is a very close knit family.



2 April 2024