Peter Robinson is the clear favourite to succeed Ian Paisley following the historic announcement that he will quit as First Minister and leader of the DUP.
Paisley confirmed his decision to go in May after mounting pressure from within his party in recent weeks to stand aside.
Anger at a decision to appoint his son to the Policing Board -- days after a financial scandal forced his son to leave his position as Junior Minister in the northern Executive -- is thought to have finally forced the 81-year-old leader to confirm his departure.
Rev Paisley will remain as an MP and assembly member but step down as First Minister after a high-profile investment conference in Belfast.
Although republicans consider the DUP leader to have been one of the major causes of conflict in Ireland over the decades, Sinn Féin joined rival unionists and the British and Irish governments in commending Mr Paisley’s recent conversion to power sharing.
Mr Paisley explained his decision to stand down in a television news interview.
“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,’’ he 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.”
But it is clear internal party pressures became too much for him not to give notice of his departure. DUP deputy leader and finance minister Peter Robinson appears certain to replace him as party leader and First Minister, but Mr Paisley would not be drawn on his successor.
“This is not the Church of Rome,” he said. “This is not Apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me.
“The person will succeed me when the mark is on the paper and the ballot is cast.”
Mr Robinson paid tribute to his long time leader.
“When Dr Paisley entered politics our position within the union was being eroded. Sinn Féin vowed to bring down Stormont. Today they are sitting inside Stormont in a Northern Ireland assembly as a minority party of a unionist majority executive.
“The IRA was armed and engaged in a bloody murder campaign. Today Republicans have been forced to give up their guns and embrace the policing structures of the British state,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey described Mr Paisley’s departure as a “brutal and merciless” political coup by the DUP’s assembly party.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said Mr Paisley had ended his political career on a positive note and commended his “crucial role” in forging the agreement with Sinn Féin last year which restored the political institutions.
“Whatever people might say, his political career has ended with a good and positive legacy for the people who live on this island,” he said.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair praised Paisley’s “decisive” contribution to the peace process.
Former SDLP leader John Hume said Ian Paisley said there was an irony in his finest moment being his elevation to First Minister last year.
“For years he said no to what I and the SDLP were doing, through Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement. He refused to allow his party to even engage in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Hume said.
“But he eventually said yes and he must be given credit for that.”
British prime minister Gordon Brown said Mr Paisley had made a “huge contribution” to political life.
“Progress on bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland would not have been possible without his immense courage and leadership.”
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also praised Mr Paisley for making “big moves”.
“When it came down to making the Good Friday Agreement work and to having an inclusive executive in Northern Ireland and to have north-south bodies, he made the big moves,” he said.
Political commentator Brian Feeney said the first minister had gone after having “served his purpose”.
“Paisley alone could have sealed the deal with Sinn Féin because his 45-year divisive career of ranting, stunts, threats, protests, walk-outs, phantom armies and third forces made it impossible for any other unionist to do so,” he said.
“Large numbers in his church and many within the DUP were deeply shocked at the ultimate outsider becoming the ultimate insider. How many, we won’t know until the European election in June 2009.”
- Born in Lurgan, County Armagh on April 6 1926. Ordained in 1946 and founded the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951
- In 1964 his demand that the police remove an Irish tricolour flag from a window in Belfast led to two days of rioting
- visits to Stormont during the late-1960s by Taoisigh Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch led to a spate of snowball throwing at Mr Lynch’s car and inspired an ‘O’Neill must go’ campaign
- led anti-civil rights movement protests at the end of the 1960s. His involvement in one anti-civil rights protest led to his arrest in 1968 and he served six weeks in jail
- emerged as a political force in 1970, winning seats at Stormont and Westminster for his ‘Protestant Unionist Party’
- the DUP was formed in 1971 with Mr Paisley starting his 35 year tenure as its leader in 1973
- in 1974 he led opposition to the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement and was a key figure in the UIster Workers’ Council strike which collapsed the process
- launched the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign against homosexuality in 1977
- the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 met militant Paisley opposition, including his iconic ‘Never, never, never, never’ speech at Belfast City Hall.
- helped to establish the paramilitary ‘Ulster Resistance’ movement in 1986. At a rally in the Ulster Hall Paisley spoke of the need for the ‘Third Force’ to fight republicanism and was filmed placing a Red Beret on his head and standing to attention.
- In 1988, as John Paul II delivered a speech to the European Parliament, Paisley shouted “I Denounce you as the AntiChrist!” and held up a red poster reading “Pope John Paul II ANTICHRIST” in black letters. Paisley was ejected from the auditorium by fellow MEPs
- boycotted the peace process from its inception, denouncing the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as “sell-outs”
- following the collapse of power-sharing in 2002, the DUP becomes the largest unionist party
- fights illness in 2004, saying he had “walked along death’s shadow”.
- makes his first political visit to Dublin in 2004 to meet Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
- a breakthrough at the end of 2006 with the signing of the St Andrews Agreement. Power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP becomes a realistic prospect for the first time
- by March 2007 Paisley is photographed sitting beside Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, the first outward sign of talks with republicans
- devolution is restored in May 2007 with Mr Paisley installed as First Minister and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. The two become known as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ for their good-humoured relationship
- as pressure mounts on his son in late 2007 and early 2008 over his dealings with business figures, rumours intensify that Mr Paisley will step down as first minister and DUP leader “sooner rather than later”