Ex-DUP leader Donaldson appears in court with wife charged with aiding and abetting

Former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been released on continuing bail after he appeared at Newry Magistrates’ Court to face a number of historical sex charges, including one count of rape.

He appeared in court with his co-accused - his wife Eleanor.

Sir Jeffrey, 61, was arrested at the end of March and charged in relation to non-recent sexual allegations.

He did not speak as he arrived at the court accompanied by his solicitor on Wednesday.

Outside the court there has been huge gathering of Press and public ahead of the hearing and police had to clear a path to allow the veteran politician to enter the building.

During a brief court hearing, the charges were read to the Lagan Valley MP and his wife as they stood in the dock.

The public gallery in the tiny Court Three at Newry Courthouse was packed for the hearing.

There were so many media in attendance that special arrangements were made to facilitate journalists who could not be accommodated in the courtroom.

The hearing began with District Judge Eamonn King noting the public interest in the case and warning that it would be a criminal offence for anyone to record the proceedings.

The two defendants were then asked to confirm their names and dates of birth. They stood as the charges were then read to them. Donaldson, wearing a grey suit, and his wife, wearing a black suit, sat in the dock at the rear of the court, with a court custody officer between him and his wife. Sir Jeffrey, faces 11 charges including one of rape, one of committing an act of gross indecency and nine of indecent assault on dates between 1985 and 2006. The offences relate to two alleged victims.

Asked if he understood the charges, he nodded and said “I do”.

His wife, Eleanor Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, 58, of Dromore, faces charges of aiding and abetting in connection with the alleged offences.

Eleanor Donaldson appears in court. Credit: Presseye

She also confirmed to the judge that she understood the charges. Neither defendant was asked to formally enter a plea. A PSNI detective sergeant told the court he could connect the pair to the charges. Defence lawyers said there had been some agreed variations to bail, including ending a condition that the two defendants cannot contact each other. A Public Prosecution Service lawyer asked for a four week adjournment to progress work on setting a date for a preliminary inquiry.

Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at court. Credit: PA

The judge listed the case for mention again on May 22. However, he said the two defendants would not have to attend on that date. The pair were released on continuing bail of £350 following the brief hearing. There were chaotic scenes outside court as the pair left. Some members of the public shouted abuse and tried to lunge towards him as he left the building.

The police surrounded Jeffrey Donaldson who briefly re-entered the court building before leaving a second time and departing in a car. Following the revelations, the Lagan Valley MP stood down as DUP leader and the party suspended his membership.

The East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson was appointed interim DUP leader.

It is understood Sir Jeffrey told the party he will be "strenuously" denying the charges.

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 party and joined the DUP in January 2004.

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

It is understood while he will remain MP, he does not intend to contest his seat for the forthcoming election.

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