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N. Ireland Protestant leader to leave European position

BELFAST -- The Rev. Ian Paisley, Northern Ireland's most popular Protestant politician, said yesterday he will step down in June as a member of the European Parliament -- the forum he once used to assail Pope John Paul II as "the Antichrist."

Commentators viewed Paisley's decision not to seek reelection as a sign that the 77-year-old preacher, who has led efforts to thwart compromise in Northern Ireland for four decades, may be getting ready to bow out as leader of his Democratic Unionist Party.

But Paisley, who first won a seat in the European legislature in 1979 and has topped the Northern Ireland vote five times in a row, insisted his move signaled his readiness for the next political fight -- versus Catholic politicians in a new round of Belfast talks starting Feb. 3.

"I am going to be at every one of these talks," said Paisley, who opposes the 1998 peace accord for this British territory.

Paisley, who also opposes the Irish government's role in promoting compromise in Northern Ireland, said his involvement in the talks would mean that Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern "will get away with nothing."

His 25-year career on the European stage in Strasbourg, France, brought more than a few moments of bombast and absurdity.

His first speech in 1979 emphasized his anger that the British flag outside the parliament building was flying upside down. But the most widely recalled moment came in 1988, when Paisley heckled John Paul during the pontiff's speech.

"I renounce you as the Antichrist!" Paisley repeatedly shouted before guards and other lawmakers shoved him from the room.

Paisley, the son of a Baptist preacher, in 1951 founded his own virulently anti-Catholic denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and still preaches in the church's Martyrs Memorial Cathedral in Belfast on most Sundays.

He has been a member of Britain's parliament since 1970.

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