Who is former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson?

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been an ever-present feature of the political landscape in Northern Ireland for several decades.

But his leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party came to an end on 29 March, when it revealed Donaldson had resigned as chief after he was charged with sexual offences of a “historical nature”.

Born in County Down in the 1960s, he was raised during the Troubles and has been a vocal campaigner for unionism throughout his life.

Donaldson came to the fore after the UK left the EU for his opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol – which he believed undermined Northern Ireland‘s place in the United Kingdom.

DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says progress has been made on the Northern Ireland protocol. In a statement to the press he said 'It's not a question of compromise, it is a question of the UK government honouring the commitments they've made to the people of Northern Ireland'.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson did not endorse the Windsor Framework

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Growing up and family deaths

Donaldson was born in 1962 and raised in Kilkeen in County Down alongside four brothers and three sisters in what he described as “a traditional, rural, home-centred upbringing”.

As a boy, his “childhood innocence was shattered” by the Troubles – in 1970 his cousin Samuel Donaldson, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was killed in an IRA car bombing.

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As a young man, he joined the Orange Order, a protestant group in which he later became an Assistant Grand Master.

He was at one point chairman of the Ulster Young Unionist Council, and also joined the Ulster Defence Regiment – a part of the British Army which mainly consisted of volunteers, who largely spent their time guarding key points, patrolling, carrying out surveillance, and manning vehicle checkpoints.

In 1985 Samuel’s brother, Alex, was also killed by the IRA, in a mortar attack on a police station.

Alex Donaldson was killed in a mortar attack on Newry police station
Alex Donaldson was killed in a mortar attack on Newry police station

Run up to the Good Friday Agreement and defection

In the early 1980s, Donaldson worked on Enoch Powell’s campaigns to be elected as an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP for South Down.

Donaldson was later elected as a UUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1985 at the age of 22.

He was elected to the House of Commons in 1997 and was a member of the UUP’s negotiating team for what became the Good Friday Agreement.

However, he voted against the deal in the subsequent referendum and warned UUP leader David Trimble against supporting it.

In 1998, he was blocked from standing in the elections for the Stormont assembly.

Having continued to agitate under Lord Trimble’s leadership, Donaldson left the UUP in 2003 and joined the DUP, having been re-elected to Stormont.

Sir Jeffrey, left, with Lord Trimble, during Northern Ireland peace negotiations in Downing Street in 1997
Sir Jeffrey, left, with Lord Trimble, during Northern Ireland peace negotiations in Downing Street in 1997

Brexit, Northern Ireland Protocol and the party leadership

Donaldson has served consistently as the DUP MP for Lagan Valley, but stood down from the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010, having served in government in Belfast.

He was notable for his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion – which Westminster legalised in Northern Ireland.

In 2016 he was knighted in the birthday honours list for political service.

In the same year, he supported Brexit, and became associated with the Theresa May administration in 2017 as part of the confidence and supply arrangement which saw the DUP support Mrs May’s government in key votes.

However, the party opposed the deal Mrs May put to parliament in 2019.

Since the implementation of Brexit, Donaldson has opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he says undermines the Good Friday Agreement he voted against.

In 2019 he became the leader of the DUP at Westminster, and was elected leader of the party as a whole in 2021.

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Donaldson on DUP’s deal decision

He successfully stood in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, but has said he will not take up the seat until the situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol can be resolved.

Last year, Donaldson refused to endorse the Windsor Framework, which was intended to resolve issues with the Protocol – and is still sitting as an MP at Westminster.

Power-sharing returned in Northern Ireland in early 2024, after Donaldson and the DUP agreed on a way forward with the UK government on post-Brexit trade.

His resignation was confirmed on Good Friday 2024, and it was announced that his deputy, Gavin Robinson MP, would be made interim leader.


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