By Irish political journalist JOHN COULTER
Rev Ian Paisley, a political messiah to Protestant Unionism, has shockingly quit as both Stormont First Minister and leader of the party he founded, the Democratic Unionists.
But there is no threat to the power-sharing Unionist/Republican power-sharing Executive as a Gang of Four will fast emerge as the new power brokers in post Paisley Unionism.
This new political Gang of Four – two from the DUP, two from the Ulster Unionist – will now take control of unionism as the merger of the two parties is almost certain.
It is now almost certain power will pass to the DUP deputy leader and Executive finance minister Peter Robinson, with Nigel Dodds, the North Belfast MP, the most likely contender as deputy DUP boss.
Unionists pushing Paisley Senior to quit as First Minister and DUP boss, clearly wanted him to mark the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April by unveiling when he would formally retire from the top posts.
While the modernising wing in the DUP wanted the handover to be a bloodless coup, its supporters realised they needed to put additional pressure on Paisley senior to at least publicly announce he was quitting frontline politics.
Paisley is stepping down less than a year as First Minister, but will remain as North Antrim Westminster MP and North Antrim Assembly member – unless at almost 82 years old, his opponents want him out of politics completely.
His son, Ian Junior, had already resigned as Junior Minister in the power-sharing Executive amid a blaze of publicity about his political incomes.
He has been replaced by DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson loyalist Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP.
Donaldson, a former Ulster Unionist, is viewed as a key negotiator is the inevitable merger between the DUP and Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionists in a post-Paisley unionist era.
However, Unionist sources predicted last night that whilst a new leadership, dubbed the Gang of Four, is believed to be ready to step in, this will and cannot happen until ‘unionism is rid of the Paisley dynasty’.
The well-placed sources said: ‘The DUP does not want the replacement of Paisley to become a civil war between the modernisers and the fundamentalists.’
According to the sources, the DUP’s dream team leadership would be current Stormont finance minister and deputy leader Peter Robinson as boss, with North Belfast MP and Assembly Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Nigel Dodds as DUP deputy.
Robinson is seen as a moderniser, while Dodds commands considerable fundamentalist grassroots support.
If the two wings of the DUP can reach a compromise on a post Paisley leadership without either splitting the party, or sparking a bitter internal feud, Donaldson will be in line to progress from Junior Minister to a full blown Executive ministry.
If a Robinson/Dodds accommodation cannot be reached, Donaldson is in a prime position to become DUP deputy leader, and ultimately leader when Robinson himself eventually retires.
While the religious fundamentalist wing of the DUP still has considerable clout within the party, it does not command the majority view.
If Robinson moves from finance to First Minister, it would leave the political door open for either East Derry MP Gregory Campbell, or more likely Donaldson to snatch his ministerial post.
In the rival Ulster Unionist camp, with the party fairly much at peace within itself for the first time in a decade, the focus will be on getting party boss Reg Empey and his deputy Danny Kennedy into Westminster.
The UUP only has one MP in the Commons, Sylvia Hermon in North Down, the wife of the former RUC chief constable Jack Hermon.
Kennedy is being heavily mooted as a runner against Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson, while Empey has been suggested as a replacement for Hermon in North Down, or even going head to head with the DUP’s Gospel-singing cleric, Willie McCrea in South Antrim.
Unionist sources were adamant post-Paisley unionism would be lead by the Gang of Four – Robinson, Dodds, Empey and Kennedy – but the Gang’s leadership could only come to the fore once the Paisley dynasty of Ian Senior, his son and Ian Senior’s wife Eileen in the House of Lords has been politically eradicated.
Even though Paisley senior had lost his very effective right-hand man in son Ian Junior, unionist sources maintained the First Minister ‘would alone will decide when he goes’.
However, the impact of the DUP’s defeat in the Dromore by-election and the perceived growth in support for Independent MEP Jim Allister’s anti power sharing and Right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice movement, has clearly accelerated the pace at which the Paisley dynasty crumbled.
The compromise has been that the Big Man quits the leadership and Stormont (First Minister and MLA), but stays on as North Antrim Westminster MP.
He’s been North Antrim MP since 1970, so you’ll know if his bowing out includes the North Antrim Westminster seat.
In January, Paisley senior was forced to quit as Moderator, or leader, of his Christian fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church – a post he had held for more than half a century.
In spite of the pressure on Paisley Senior to retire, past history suggested the Big Man of Unionist politics would bounce back.
In 1970, he won both the Bannside Stormont seat and North Antrim Commons seat after being defeated the previous year in the Stormont General Election.
In 1977, he remained as DUP leader after the disastrous loyalist strike to protest at the security situation.
In 1998, when the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement delivered a resounding Yes vote across the North, he steered his ‘No’ Camp‚ DUP to becoming the lead voice for unionism by 2003.
In the early years of the new millennium, he overcame a ‘near death’s door’ health crisis to lead his party in capturing all but one of the unionist family’s Commons seats in the 2005 General Election.
However, as 2008 progressed, Paisley senior came under increasing pressure from within the DUP and the wider unionist family to use the 10th anniversary commemorations of the Belfast Agreement to announce a date for his formal retirement.