|Ian Paisley has been the leader of Protestant resistance in Northern Ireland since the 1960s.|
BELFAST - An era ended in Northern Ireland yesterday as Ian Paisley, the fiery evangelist who long personified Protestant resistance to Irish nationalism, announced he will step down as head of the territory's power-sharing government.
The 81-year-old Paisley's career tracked the arc of tumult that tore at Northern Ireland, beginning with the bloodshed of sectarian clashes in the 1960s and arcing through four decades of conflict that finally culminated in reconciliation with Roman Catholics a year ago.
Paisley has faced growing dissent from hard-liners within his Democratic Unionist Party over his dramatic U-turn to work with Catholics. That decision was blamed for the party's loss in a January election, and his leadership was further undermined by his son's ethical lapses.
Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army chieftain who became Paisley's close colleague in the power-sharing deal reached last March, praised his former enemy for providing "decisive leadership that was instrumental in achieving the peace that we now enjoy."
Paisley said he will resign as government head and leader of his political party in May, after an investment conference in Belfast organized by the power-sharing executive of the British territory.
"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."
Although he will give up his role as Northern Ireland's first minister, he said he planned to retain his legislative seats in Britain's Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he admired the leadership that Paisley had shown as first minister.
"His commitment and dedication to public service deserve our gratitude. Progress on bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland would not have been possible without his immense courage and leadership," Brown said.
It was a huge change for Paisley, who had been the booming voice of Protestant insistence that Northern Ireland remain a part of Britain.
Paisley's followers were stunned last March when he abandoned his four-decade-old refusal to work with the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party following that party's landmark decision to begin working with the Northern Ireland police force.
Paisley, who represents Northern Ireland's Protestant majority, and McGuinness, who represents the Catholic minority, took charge of a 12-member, four-party administration.
"In the final analysis, he made it happen. The man famous for saying no will go down in history for saying yes," said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped broker the deal.
But David Ford, the leader of Northern Ireland's neutral Alliance Party, said history must decide whether Paisley will be mostly remembered for his 40 years of saying no. "Many will say his road to Damascus conversion came 35 years too late," Ford said.
The prime minister of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, who spent most of his political career at loggerheads with Paisley, said it was difficult to see Paisley leave after stability had been achieved.
"We have to now work to see if that harmonious relationship can continue," Ahern said. "Obviously, I hope so but time will decide that."
The leading candidates to replace Paisley as party leader are Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader who is finance minister in the power-sharing administration, and Nigel Dodds, the economy minister.
Paisley would not comment on who might take over from him.
"This is not the Church of Rome," he told Ulster Television. "This is not apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me."
He also said he would not try to influence his successor from behind the scenes. "When I make a break, it is a break," he said.
Paisley previously had insisted he would serve his full term as power-sharing leader through 2011, but the growing disquiet from hard-liners within his party proved too much.
Although he founded the party in 1971, to oppose compromise with Catholics, his hold was shaken in January when it lost an election to fill a vacant Northern Ireland Assembly seat - in part because some Protestant voters turned to a fringe party opposed to sharing power.
Paisley's standing also suffered when his son, Ian Paisley Jr., was forced to resign as his government assistant last month amid questions about his ties to a real estate developer. Documents showed the younger Paisley had bought a home from the developer and had lobbied the British government repeatedly to support various business ventures.
Grass-roots disillusionment with Paisley's new political stance already had forced him to quit in January as head of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the anti-Catholic denomination he founded in 1951.