DUP leader Peter Robinson has confirmed that he will step down as the North’s First Minister and the leader of its largest party within weeks.
The 66-year-old unionist hardliner says he will not contest the next Assembly elections in May and is expected to officially retire by the end of the year.
The DUP is holding its party conference this weekend and will be dominated by the debate over his potential successor, most likely to be Nigel Dodds, another Belfast-based hardliner.
The development follows the announcement two days ago of the latest partial agreement in the North’s political process, officially known as ‘Fresh Start’, and seen by political analysts to have favoured the unionist and Tory agenda.
DUP officials have already portrayed the agreement as a testament to Robinson’s skills as a negotiator and a landmark in his “normalisation” strategy. But while the party prepares to hail Robinson’s legacy at its forthcoming annual conference, there have been mounting accusations of large-scale financial impropriety and corruption as well as questions over his personal health.
He told the unionist Belfast Telegraph newspaper today that he would be gone within a matter of weeks.
“I am telling you this now, because 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. I think they have a right to know what the circumstances are.”
Robinson, one of the founding members of the DUP and with a political career lasting more than 40 years, said he had accomplished the aims he had set himself as DUP leader.
First Minister at Stormont since 2008, when he took over from firebrand Ian Paisley, Robinson was always seen as more pragmatic than the religious/sectarian zeal of Paisley’s Free Presbyterian clique. The business-minded former MP for East Belfast was known for building his own family empire, known to pundits as ‘Swish Family Robinson’.
Amid a number of financial scandals, the gravest came this year with unresolved accusations at the Stormont Assembly that Robinson was due to benefit in a seven-figure ‘finder’s fee’ in regard to the corrupt sale of assets held by NAMA, an asset management agency of the 26-County government.
Robinson had shown himself to be a great political survivor, particularly in 2008 when an extraordinary sex scandal erupted involving his wife, Iris (pictured, left), her 19-year-old lover, and undeclared loans totalling fifty thousand pounds.
However, the latest financial scandal, coupled with serious health problems, had appeared to make his departure inevitable. He admitted there were “massive pressures” in his work.
He said he is looking forward to retirement and says his family are too.
“I might be a journalist,” he said. “I have nothing decided and that is part of the attraction of it all. I am not the sort of person who sits at home with a blanket around my knees. I want to continue doing things.”