IMAGE: IAN PAISLEY
Shaun Curry  /  AFP-Getty Images
Paisley faced growing dissent from hard-liners within his party over his dramatic U-turn last year to share power with Catholics — a decision that was blamed for a by-election loss in January.
updated 3/4/2008 4:55:30 PM ET 2008-03-04T21:55:30

An era in Northern Ireland politics ended Tuesday as Ian Paisley, the head of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, announced he will step down.

After decades of stirring the cauldron of conflict, Paisley finally turned his people toward peace by leading a power sharing government of Catholics and Protestants.

The 81-year-old Protestant evangelist, who dominated Northern Ireland political life for four turbulent decades, said he would step down in May as leader of the government and as head of his Democratic Unionist Party.

Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army chieftain who became Paisley's close colleague, praised his former enemy for providing "decisive leadership that was instrumental in achieving the peace that we now enjoy."

Paisley said he has decided to leave in May after mounting pressure from within his party in recent weeks to stand aside.

Paisley faced growing dissent from hard-liners within his party over his dramatic U-turn last year to share power with Catholics — a decision that was blamed for a by-election loss in January. His leadership was further undermined when his son was forced to resign last month over ethics failures.

Ties move to upcoming conference
He said he will step down after an investment conference in Belfast organized by the power-sharing executive.

"I came to this decision a few weeks ago when I was thinking very much about the conference and what was going to come after the conference," Paisley said.

"I thought that it is a marker, a very big marker and it would be a very appropriate time for me to bow out."

Although he will resign as Northern Ireland's first minister, he said he plans to remain a member of British Parliament and a Northern Ireland Assembly member.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he admired the leadership Paisley had shown as first minister.

"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," Brown said.

Paisley ended 3 1/2 years of political deadlock in March 2007 by abandoning his decades-old refusal to work with the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party following that party's landmark decision to begin working with the Northern Ireland police force.

Paisley, who represents the British Protestant majority, and McGuinness, who represents the Irish Catholic minority, took charge of a 12-member, four-party administration.

"He played an absolutely historic role in ending the deadlock and establishing permanent devolved government and deserves enormous credit for the courage and vision he showed," Britain's former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said.

Ahern, Adams hope for stability
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern acknowledged he had spent most of his political career at loggerheads with Paisley, but said it was difficult to see Paisley leave after stability had been achieved.

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

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams echoed that sentiment.

"Whatever people might say, his political career has ended with a good and positive legacy for the people who live on this island," Adams told Sky News.

"My only concern ... is that those within the DUP who are against power-sharing, and there are some, would use any instability in the leadership or any question around the leadership to set back the progress we have made thus far," Adams said.

DUP deputy leader and Northern Ireland's Finance Minister Peter Robinson and Economy Minister Nigel Dodds are seen as leading candidates to succeed Paisley.

Paisley would not comment on who might succeed him as party leader.

"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."

He said he had no plans to try to influence his eventual successor from behind the scenes.

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

Paisley's standing as leader suffered when his son, Ian Paisley Jr., resigned last month amid allegations of ethical failures.

Paisley previously had insisted he would serve his full term as power-sharing leader through 2011, but he was facing growing disquiet from hard-liners over his stunning reversal on sharing power.

In January, Paisley was forced to stand down as leader of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the anti-Catholic denomination he founded in 1951, amid grass roots disillusionment with his political U-turn.

Paisley founded the Democratic Unionists party in 1971 to oppose compromise with Catholics. But his hold over the party was shaken in January when the Democratic Unionists lost a by-election for a vacant Northern Ireland Assembly seat — in part because some Protestant voters turned to a fringe party opposed to power-sharing.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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