A brief hearing and chaotic scenes as Donaldson makes first court appearance

There were barely 10 minutes between Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his wife Lady Eleanor entering the dock at Court Three in Newry Magistrates’ Court and being led out again.

After weeks of headlines and the aftershocks of a political earthquake like never before in Northern Ireland, the first court appearance for the former DUP leader was brief and nondescript.

However, the formal proceedings inside the tiny wood-panelled courtroom were in contrast to the chaotic scenes on the street outside.

Police struggled to hold back photographers and camera operators surging forward eager to capture the first shots of the former DUP leader in public since his shock arrest and charge as he arrived at Newry Courthouse.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson court case
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was released on continuing bail on a number of historical sex charges (Brian Lawless/PA)

The driver then appeared to have second thoughts about the drop-off location, edging back out onto the road again before stopping yards away adjacent to the pedestrian door.

Donaldson’s waiting solicitor John McBurney met the veteran politician as he got out of the left rear passenger seat and ushered him quickly through the line of the police officers who had created a tunnel through the assembled press.

Eyes fixed forward, Donaldson, wearing a grey suit and a blue tie dotted with a white rabbit motif, ignored questions shouted by reporters as he weaved his way toward the court building, at one point ducking to avoid a wayward boom microphone.

Eleanor Donaldson’s arrival a short time later went more smoothly.

A car dropped her off on the pavement beside the court entrance and, smiling, she strode through the two banks of media, reaching the security door before some of the camera operators even noticed.

Inside the heavily fortified court building, special arrangements had to be laid on to cater for the media interest in the case. Thirteen journalists packed onto the small press bench while more watched on a remote link set up in an adjacent courtroom. The small public gallery area was filled.

Such was the interest that the Sightlink facility, set up to allow proceedings to be viewed remotely, had reached its capacity before the case began.

Just before 10:40am the Donaldsons were led into the dock.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson court case
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s wife, Lady Eleanor Donaldson arrives at Newry Magistrates’ Court (Niall Carson/PA)

They both stood to confirm their names and addresses and as the charges were read to them, Donaldson nodded briefly and said “I do” when asked if he understood.

He faces 11 charges – 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.

His wife, 58, of Dublinhill Road, Dromore, faces charges of aiding and abetting in connection with the alleged offences.

No details of the police investigation were provided and the couple were released on continuing bail.

The judge said defendants would usually sign their bail conditions in the cells beneath the courts, but agreed that other arrangements could be made on this occasion.

If the court arrival scenes were unruly, they were nothing compared to the exit.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson court case
Eleanor Donaldson leaves Newry Magistrates’ Court, after appearing to face charges of aiding and abetting in connection with alleged offences committed by her husband (Brian Lawless/PA)

Eleanor Donaldson left before her husband. Again, she walked out of the building at a brisk pace toward a waiting car, but by the time she reached it protesters from the other side of the road had rushed forward to surround the vehicle, some shouting abuse.

Minutes later Jeffrey Donaldson emerged along with his solicitor.

His exit appeared timed to coincide with the arrival of the car that had dropped him off, but that plan seemingly misfired when the vehicle got stuck in traffic a short distance from the court.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson court case
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson waiting for his car following the hearing (Brian Lawless/PA)

He stood there for more than a minute, craning his neck throughout on the lookout for the car, as protesters pressed toward him shouting.

Eventually, he and his solicitor turned and walked back through the crowds toward the court.

Shortly after they reached the door, the car finally pulled up outside, prompting the pair to emerge once again from behind the fortified security gate.

Donaldson made it into the car on the second attempt, pulling away from a scene that few who have charted his four-decade career in politics could have ever imagined.

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