November 19, 2015 / 8:20 AM / 3 years ago

Northern Ireland's first minister to step down before elections

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson is to stand down from the role and as leader of the Democratic Unionists (DUP), the party said on Thursday, two days after securing a deal to save the province’s power-sharing administration.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson (C) is flanked by party colleagues as he reacts during a news conference in front of Parliament buildings in Stormont, Northern Ireland September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Robinson, who took over as leader from firebrand Protestant cleric Ian Paisley in 2008, would not step down immediately and the process of finding a new leader would begin early next year before regional elections in May, the party said.

A founding member of the DUP in 1971 at the height of three decades of violence between Roman Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant unionists, Robinson had a heart attack this year but he told the paper he was not leaving for health reasons.

“For anyone who is not very young, to go beyond two terms is stretching it,” the 66-year-old told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper ahead of the DUP annual conference on Saturday when he was expected to announce that he will not stand in 2016 elections for Belfast’s Assembly.

“There are massive pressures on anybody in this job. You do need to renew political leadership, bringing in people with perhaps more energy and people with new ideas.”

When Robinson temporarily stepped down as first minister in September in protest at a murder linked to members of the Irish Republican Army, finance minister Arlene Foster, a survivor of an IRA bomb attack on a school bus at the age of 17, took over.

While Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of the nationalist Sinn Fein party struck a deal on Tuesday to prevent the power-sharing administration from collapsing, his successor will have to avoid a repetition of the near-constant political paralysis that critics say is damaging the economy.

Foster, 45, also stood in as first minister in 2010 and has a working relationship with McGuinness, potentially easing any tensions with Sinn Fein if she is appointed as the permanent successor. She is the favorite to take over as first minister.

Robinson, a quieter presence and always in Paisley’s shadow, brought a degree of stability to the compulsory administration after a stop-start inception following a 1998 peace deal.

His greatest political legacy is likely to be the role played in steering the DUP from a small party on the sidelines of unionism to becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party.

“He leaves with a pretty strong track record and on a mini high with the Fresh Start Agreement. I think it is a logical time to stand down,” Professor John Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool, said.

Editing by Padraic Halpin and Louise Ireland

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