In a March 4, 2008, announcement, the Rev. Ian Paisley signals the end of an era by announcing he will retire as First Minister of Northern Ireland. He also confirms he is stepping down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the party he founded in the early 1970s. The news represents a huge moment in the politics and recent history of Northern Ireland, removing from the scene as it does one of its most striking figures.
The 81-year-old announces he will quit both posts following an international investment conference in Belfast in May 2008 but will remain as an MP and Assembly member.
“I came to this decision a few weeks ago when I was thinking very much about the conference and what was going come after the conference,” Paisley tells Ulster Television. “I thought that it is a marker, a very big marker and it would be a very appropriate time for me to bow out.”
Paisley denies he is leaving in part over allegations that his son, Ian Paisley Jr., lobbied Downing Street on behalf of a wealthy party member. He says his son has been “wrongly accused.” He is also weakened over defeat in a recent by-election – an indication that a section of the DUP’s electorate is uneasy about his historic decision to share power with Sinn Féin.
Significantly, Paisley does not back any contender in the DUP leadership contest to succeed him. “This is not the Church of Rome. I have no right to say who will succeed me. I will not be like Putin in Russia saying to the president – ‘this is the way you have to go.’ When I make a break it will be [a] break.”
Paisley defends his decision to enter into government with Sinn Féin. “It was the right thing to do because it was the only thing to do to save us from a united Ireland. We were threatened that we would be more Irish in our rulership, that there would be more Dublin say in government. That was what the British government threatened. We managed to put that to a rest.”
“We have laid to rest that and republicans have come to see that they have to put up with Paisley and his clan. We took what was meant for our destruction and turned it into our salvation.”
Speaking from Dubai the previous night, the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, says, “It wasn’t unexpected. It was the right decision to go into sharing power with Sinn Féin which changed the politics of Ireland forever.”
The Sinn Féin MP describes Paisley as “courageous” for agreeing to enter into the power-sharing government. “We have had a positive and constructive working relationship,” McGuinness said.
Paisley’s fiercest critic within unionism, the ex-DUP MEP, Jim Allister, claims opposition to his power-sharing with Sinn Féin and his relationship with McGuinness means that Paisley “jumped before he was pushed.”
Allister’s new party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), split the DUP vote in a by-election in February 2008 and cost the party a council seat in County Down. It was Paisley’s first electoral test since he agreed to share power with Sinn Féin following the St. Andrews Agreement at the end of 2006.
In April 2008, Peter Robinson is chosen to succeed Paisley as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The 36 DUP members of the Northern Ireland Assembly unanimously select Robinson, who has been MP for Belfast East since 1979 and Paisley’s deputy since 1980. He is the Minister of Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive – Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government – for the previous year.
(From: “Paisley to step down as Ulster’s first minister” by Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent, The Guardian, March 4, 2008)