Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party scrambled on Wednesday to secure a seamless transfer of power after its firebrand leader, Ian Paisley, announced his departure, drawing tributes from all sides.
Paisley — whose agreement last year to share power with the Catholics of Sinn Fein he so long decried surprised many — said on Tuesday he would step down as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) head in May.
The 81-year-old said he would also resign as the assembly’s first minister but remain as a member of the legislature and the British Parliament in London.
“I could go on and on but I’ve decided to go,” he said. “It’s time to move on… I came to this decision several weeks ago.”
The DUP’s deputy leader and the assembly’s economy minister, Peter Robinson (59), is the favourite to succeed. Economy minister Nigel Dodds (49) has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
But a senior party source said that although in theory there could be a contest, in practice there will not be.
“If I was to wager money — and I am not a betting man — I would suspect Peter will be party leader,” the unnamed source, described as “authoritative”, told Britain’s domestic Press Association news agency.
“There would be a view after almost 29 years of waiting in the wings he has earned the right.”
Robinson himself refused to be drawn, telling the BBC: “I don’t think anybody is ruling themselves in or out — there is not at this moment a vacancy.”
And Paisley himself ruled out anointing a successor.
“This is not the Church of Rome,” he told Ulster Television in characteristic style. “This is not apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me.”
Political leaders and commentators paid tribute to Paisley, highlighting his decision to finally compromise after nearly 40 years of vowing never to surrender to the forces of Irish republicanism.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who oversaw the 1998 Good Friday agreement that largely brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of bitter sectarian violence, said Paisley’s move was “decisive”.
“In short, in the final analysis, he made it happen. The man famous for saying ‘no’ will go down in history for saying ‘yes’,” he said.
Irish Premier Bertie Ahern called Paisley’s decision to go “a watershed in the history of Ireland” while his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, praised his “huge contribution” to political life.
Paisley has been under pressure from within the DUP in recent weeks.
Last month, his son, Ian Paisley Jnr, quit as a minister over claims of improper links with a businessman.
And his cosy relationship with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness — his deputy in the assembly and a former member of the party’s armed wing, the Irish Republican Army — has also come under scrutiny.
The pair — whose working relationship would have been unthinkable even a year ago — has never been seen to shake hands but is often seen laughing together in public, leading to them being called “the Chuckle Brothers”.
McGuinness said Paisley’s decision to stand down was the “end of an era”.
“It is obviously a momentous decision for him and for the political process,” he told Ireland’s RTE state radio.
Before agreeing to share power with Sinn Fein, Paisley spent decades condemning the Catholic Church, which he once reportedly labelled “the whore of Babylon”.
He also called Pope John Paul II the Antichrist in the European Parliament.
Written off as a dinosaur after opposing the Good Friday peace deal, he made a comeback after the DUP had increasing electoral success, leading to hints of a willingness to compromise. — AFP