Peter Robinson to step down as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of DUP

Press Eye Northern Ireland -  Leader Peter Robinson
Press Eye Northern Ireland - Leader Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson has said he intends to step down as Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of his Democratic Unionist Party.

Mr Robinson, 66, made the widely-expected announcement in an article in the Belfast Telegraph.

He will not contest next May’s Assembly election and said he is likely to leave office in the coming weeks.

The veteran politician suffered a heart attack earlier this year but he has insisted he had already made his mind up to leave before the health scare.

There had been growing speculation Mr Robinson would outline his departure plans at the DUP’s annual conference this weekend.

In the event, he confirmed his exit in a pre-conference interview with the Belfast daily paper.

The move comes just days after Mr Robinson struck a deal with Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments to save the faltering powersharing administration in Belfast.

“I think it would be disrespectful to the party membership if I was to go through a conference with the pretence that I would be leading the party into the next election,” he said.

“I think they have a right to know what the circumstances are.”

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds will be among the favourites to take over as DUP leader.

However, with Mr Dodds based in Westminster, another senior party figure may take on the role of Stormont First Minister.

Current Finance Minister Arlene Foster has been touted as a potential leader of the powersharing coalition.

Mr Robinson said he would remain in the post until the Fresh Start agreement is “bedded in” - a period he indicated could last into the early new year.

“There are a number of fairly immediate decisions that have to be taken and they (party officers) will then organise a transition,” he said.

“In the meantime, I don’t want people to be focusing on issues of succession yet. When the party officers declare the process - which I guess would be at the beginning of next year - then people can start looking at who the successors should be for leader and First Minister. Let’s focus on the agreement and getting it bedded in.”

Mr Robinson, who replaced Ian Paisley as First Minister and DUP leader in 2008, said he had wanted to secure a number of specific objectives before leaving - namely stabilising the power-sharing government, the DUP retaking the East Belfast Westminster seat he lost in 2010 and setting a date for Northern Ireland to determine its own corporation tax rate.

With all those accomplished, he said the time was right to step aside.

“For anyone who is not very young to go beyond two terms is stretching it,” he said.

“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.”

During a heated Stormont debate on Wednesday, on a motion to allow Westminster to legislate to introduce stalled welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, a number of political opponents suggested the Assembly vote was being rushed through to leave the stage clear for Mr Robinson to make a statement at his weekend party conference.

Tuesday’s Fresh Start agreement resolved the vexed wrangle over the non-implementation of the Government’s welfare reforms, and a number of other disputes which had pushed the coalition Executive to the verge of collapse, including the fall-out from a murder linked to the Provisional IRA and an acute budgetary crisis.

However, the accord has been fiercely criticised by victims’ campaigners for failing to secure consensus on new mechanisms to address the painful legacy of the Troubles.

Also see: Peter Robinson: Four decades at the heart of Northern Ireland politics

And: Peter Robinson: Former foe Gerry Adams leads well-wishers

Also: Peter Robinson: Tributes paid to DUP leader