Ian Paisley left the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive on Saturday. A fierce opponent of concessions early in his career, the unionist leader has lent his support to the peace process for the past ten years. (Story: T. Grucza)
Ian Paisley, a giant of Northern Ireland politics for 40 years, handed the leadership of his party Saturday to Peter Robinson, who becomes First Minister of the British province next week.
Dogged until recently by three decades of civil unrest known as "the Troubles," Paisley, 82, helped bring stability to Northern Ireland by agreeing finally to share power with one-time republican arch enemies Sinn Fein.
He used to be nicknamed "Dr No" because of he and his hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) refusal to deal with Catholic Sinn Fein, once the political wing of paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
But since becoming First Minister of Northern Ireland last year, Paisley has worked well with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, his deputy and a former IRA commander, in an alliance which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The veteran preacher, who founded the DUP in 1970, formally handed leadership of his party to Robinson on Saturday when the DUP ratified Robinson's nomination at a meeting in Castlereagh on the outskirts of Belfast.
Robinson, currently Northern Ireland's Finance Minister, will become First Minister Thursday at the head of the power-sharing government with Sinn Fein.
Some have questioned whether Robinson, who is expected to have a more detached relationship with Sinn Fein than Paisley, can keep the administration on track.
But the new leader, 59, dismissed speculation Saturday that Sinn Fein might not renominate McGuinness as his deputy in protest at his elevation.
"I think the idea that people are going to bring the house down around themselves is so ludicrous, particularly when you have a leadership that wants to resolve outstanding issues, that wants to see progress being made," he said.
"There's an awful lot that we have to do. There are many things that we should be doing that could be win-win (for both sides)."
Until Paisley teamed up with McGuinness, many commentators thought co-operation between the DUP, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, and Sinn Fein, which calls for a united Ireland, was impossible.
But the two men built up a warm relationship which earned them the nickname "the chuckle brothers" from the press after a British television childrens' show.
This relative closeness caused friction in the DUP, though, and it is thought that the issue contributed to Paisley's stepping down.
Paisley himself has said that he was quitting after a major conference this month designed to attract international investment to Belfast which provided "a very big marker" and "a very appropriate time for me to bow out."
In an emotional farewell speech Friday night, Paisley spoke of his hopes that stability in Northern Ireland would hold and develop.
"There has been an amazing turn-around, and please God we will see it come to full fruition," Paisley said in an address to a DUP dinner.
Over 3,000 people died in roughly 30 years of sectarian unrest before the foundations for peace were laid with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
This provided for devolved government from London but the Belfast parliament was temporarily closed on several occasions in wrangles which culminated in 2002, when it was suspended amid accusations of IRA spy ring activities.
It did not get up and running again until last year, following an October 2006 agreement brokered by then British prime minister Tony Blair and then Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern, signed in St Andrews, Scotland.
Date created : 2008-05-31