Jeffrey Donaldson: From the White House to Antrim police station

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Jeffrey Donaldson talking to another person who isn't visibleImage source, PA Media
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In Washington for St Patrick's Day, Jeffrey Donaldson could enjoy the fruits of his labour bringing Stormont back

Two weeks ago Sir Jeffrey Donaldson stood in the shadow of the White House like a leader liberated.

After two turbulent years he could at last enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Washington was now a warm place for the then DUP leader.

Others who had travelled for the St Patrick's Day festivities basked in the glory of the restored Executive but he was happy to take a back seat, even though it was a restoration brought about by the so-called "Donaldson deal".

The fact he and his party had two years earlier triggered the collapse of power sharing was conveniently overlooked.

We had just finished what is likely to be his last live TV interview for some time and he was keen to chat.

Nothing was off limits as we discussed the political battles he was facing both inside and outside the DUP.

He was happy to share his take on some of his troublesome colleagues.

Discarding the usual Donaldson diplomacy he was dismissive about the threat they posed.

Explosion at the heart of the DUP

This was a leader relaxed and at ease with the course he had now plotted and internal and external "noise" was not going to derail his plans.

At home detectives were preparing a plan to arrest him which was about to derail his political position.

The full weight of the investigation landed with a knock on his door at 6am on Thursday morning.

Shortly after his release from Antrim PSNI station Sir Jeffrey informed the party of the charges he now faced.

It triggered an explosion at the heart of the DUP as the officer team tried to process the allegations.

Many of them sat up through the night as they grappled with how to respond to such a crisis.

It was both a legal and political minefield.

Letter from Sir Jeffrey to party

All of Jeffrey Donaldson's social media platforms were closed down.

That's something that was always going to trigger searching questions from those already starting to join the dots with a PSNI statement.

It confirmed that a 61-year-old man had been charged with historical sexual offences along with a 57-year-old woman who was accused of aiding and abetting.

A DUP party officer meeting was quickly called for Friday morning and a letter from Jeffrey Donaldson was shared.

It set out how he had been charged with historical offences and planned to resign as party leader with immediate effect.

The letter also included his strenuous denial of the charges he now faced.

That detail was left out of the subsequent DUP press statement and it was left to other sources to disclose Sir Jeffrey's position that he will strenuously contest the charges.

But the statement did confirm Jeffrey Donaldson's suspension from the party membership and Gavin Robinson's appointment as interim leader.

He received the unanimous support of the officer team, something he was keen to highlight to head off any questions about potential splits.

A close ally of Sir Jeffrey's, he was clearly shaken by the allegations when he appeared before a TV camera.

It will now fall to him to steady a party battered and bruised by a political bombshell.

Shoring up the fledging power sharing institutions will be his first priority.

The potential of instability within the DUP to destabilise the institutions remains a key concern for the other Executive parties.

But there is no sign of any divisions within the DUPs shell-shocked ranks.

By the time MLAs return from their Easter break the focus will be elsewhere with a programme for government and budget to be agreed.

But the real test for the DUPs new interim leader will come when the general election is called.

It may even come before then if Sir Jeffrey Donaldson resigns as MP for Lagan Valley.

The prospect of the DUP trying to retain the seat in a by-election is not something Gavin Robinson would relish.

A bigger challenge for Gavin Robinson will be managing those DUP MPs opposed to the deal he negotiated and the party's decision to return to Stormont.

The DUP may struggle to find a manifesto all their MPs can sign up to.

With so many challenges ahead both inside and outside the party it may be some time before Gavin Robinson feels like a liberated leader.


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