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Paisley's quitting


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Northern Ireland was facing a new political era tonight after the Rev Ian Paisley announced he was stepping down as First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader.

The 81-year-old unionist has been a towering political presence in Northern Ireland for five decades and tributes were paid to him tonight from across the political spectrum.

His decision to stand down in May after an investment conference in Belfast aimed at American businessmen could trigger a leadership contest in his party, with deputy leader Peter Robinson the firm favourite to take over.

But party sources were suggesting the transition could be a lot smoother, with the other main contender Nigel Dodds not putting his name forward and forming part of a dream ticket as deputy leader.

Mr Paisley, who will remain an MP and Assembly member for North Antrim, said he had decided to stand down after the investment conference because it seemed to be the most appropriate time for him to quit frontline politics.

But he would not be drawn on who should take over.

"This is not the Church of Rome," he told Ulster Television.

"This is not Apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me.

"The person will succeed me when the mark is on the paper and the ballot is cast.

"Whoever that will be will have my support and encouragement and if he wants to take my advice, he will get that advice if he asks for it, but I will not be sitting like Putin in Russia saying to the president 'This is the way you have to go'.

"When I make a break, it is a break."

Mr Paisley will be leaving frontline politics one year after confounding his political opponents by going into government with Sinn Fein.

For much of his career he was regarded in London, Dublin, Washington and Belfast as an uncompromising unionist extremist and a stern critic of Irish republicanism.

After years of castigating the Ulster Unionist Party for engaging the Irish Government and eventually republicans, he steered the DUP from the political margins to becoming the biggest party in a power-sharing executive featuring Sinn Fein.

His cordial working relationship with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern unnerved some allies and in January he was forced to step down as moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church.

In recent days there was mounting concern in the DUP about the electoral impact of images of him and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness joking in public, earning them the nickname "the Chuckle Brothers".

That, coupled with a series of negative stories about his son Ian Junior who was forced to resign from the Stormont Executive over his links to a property developer, caused deep unease and led to intense discussions with senior party figures over the date of his resignation.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among those who paid tribute to Mr Paisley's leadership, particularly over the past year.

"The whole country values and admires the manner in which he has led as First Minister," he said.

"His commitment and dedication to public service deserve our gratitude. Progress on bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland would not have been possible without his immense courage and leadership."

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said his Government had worked hard to build a relationship with Mr Paisley.

"We've achieved that, it was not easy, and now the main player in a few months' time will go off the stage.

"We have to now work to see if that harmonious relationship can continue. Obviously, I hope so but time will decide that."

Mr McGuinness, who was returning to Belfast after advising rival sides from Sri Lanka on conflict resolution, said he had been preparing for Mr Paisley's departure but very much valued their constructive and positive working relationship.

"It is an end of an era for him and his party and it has to be acknowledged when he took a decision to lead his party into the power-sharing institutions, he was the only unionist leader who probably could have," the Mid Ulster MP said.

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