Sunday Life

The retiring Ian Paisley?
As speculation mounts that 'Big Man' is set to quit, the faourites to succeed him are lining up...

15 August 2004

Ian Paisley could be preparing for a dramatic exit from politics before the next General Election, it was claimed last night.

According to party insiders, the Big Man's last throw of the dice could come when he leads the DUP negotiating team into next month's crucial peace process talks at Stormont.

But before quitting as leader, and MP for North Antrim, he is expected to oversee the election of his successor and ensure a smooth handover of power.

Mr Paisley, now 78, was discharged from hospital last week after undergoing what his family described as a "series of routine tests".

He will publicly scoff at any suggestion he is secretly planning to stand down as leader of the party he formed in 1971.

But, typically, he caught many on the hop with his decision not to defend his seat at the European elections in June.

Last night, one senior DUP figure told Sunday Life: "There are continuing fears for his health, and privately it's believed his family would be happy if he announced his retirement from politics.

"He is someone with an enormous capacity for work and for his ministry.

"But he is assured of his place in history, and has achieved just about everything he set out to do in politics, including usurping the UUP as the main voice of unionism in Northern Ireland.

"It has been an unparalleled political career, but the growing feeling within the party is that he will be persuaded to stand down before his 79th birthday next April, or before the next General Election."

Another influential party figure said: "Ian will go when he feels the time is right, and no one would dare tell him when that is.

"But the years are catching up on him and close friends and family members believe he should call it a day, because, even without the distraction of Europe, few men half his age could sustain such a workload.

"The decision will be Ian's and Ian's alone, but the signs are that we could shortly be looking at what would be our first ever leadership election.

"The only thing certain is that he will outlast David Trimble as a party leader."

When Mr Paisley does decide to stand down, his deputy, Peter Robinson (55), would be the clear front-runner to win a leadership contest.

But a growing number within the DUP believe North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds (46), who served as European parliamentary assistant to Mr Paisley, would run him close.

"You would also have to take Gregory Campbell and possibly Jim Allister into the equation," said one party representative.

"But it's likely to come down to Peter or Nigel, and that would be difficult to call at this stage."

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