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Paisley steps aside in Northern Ireland

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Ian Paisley, a giant of Northern Ireland politics for 40 years, handed the reins of his party Saturday to Peter Robinson who is due to become first minister of the sensitive British nation next week.

Paisley , 82, helped to bring stability to Northern Ireland, dogged until recently by three decades of civil unrest known as "the Troubles," by finally agreeing to share power with one-time republican arch enemies Sinn Fein.

For years, he was nicknamed "Dr No" because of his hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) refusal to deal with Catholic Sinn Fein, once the political wing of paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

But since becoming first minister of Northern Ireland last year, Paisley has worked closely with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, his deputy and a former IRA commander, in an alliance which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The veteran preacher, who founded the DUP in 1970, formally handed leadership of the party to Robinson Saturday at a meeting in Castlereagh on the outskirts of Belfast.

Robinson, currently Northern Ireland's finance minister, is expected to become first minister Thursday at the head of the power-sharing government, which has devolved power from London, with Sinn Fein.

Some question whether Robinson , who is expected to have a more detached relationship with Sinn Fein than Paisley and has already started courting fellow pro-British parties, can keep relations with Sinn Fein on track.

The new leader, 59, dismissed speculation Saturday that Sinn Fein might not renominate McGuinness as his deputy in protest at his elevation.

This could stop him becoming first minister and trigger an election to the Belfast assembly where the Northern Ireland government sits.

"I think the idea that people are going to bring the house down around themselves is so ludicrous, particularly when you have a leadership that wants to resolve outstanding issues, that wants to see progress being made," he said.

"There's an awful lot that we have to do. There are many things that we should be doing that could be win-win for both sides."

Until Paisley teamed up with McGuinness, many commentators thought co-operation between the DUP, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, and Sinn Fein, which calls for a united Ireland, was impossible.

But the two men built up a warm relationship which earned them the nickname "the chuckle brothers" from the press after a British children's television show.

By contrast, Robinson and McGuinness have been dubbed "the brothers grim" after the German fairy tale writers.

Paisley's perceived closeness to Sinn Fein caused friction in the DUP and it is thought that the issue contributed to his stepping down.

Paisley himself has said that he was quitting after a major conference this month designed to attract international investment to Belfast which provided "a very big marker" and "a very appropriate time for me to bow out."

In an emotional farewell speech Friday night, Paisley spoke of his hopes that stability in Northern Ireland would hold and develop.

"There has been an amazing turn-around, and please God we will see it come to full fruition," he said in an address to a DUP dinner.

Over 3,000 people died in roughly 30 years of sectarian unrest before the foundations for peace were laid with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

This provided for devolved government from London but the Belfast assembly was temporarily closed on several occasions in wrangles which culminated in 2002, when it was suspended amid accusations of IRA spy ring activities.

It did not get up and running again until last year, following an October 2006 agreement brokered by then British prime minister Tony Blair and then Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern, signed in St Andrews, Scotland.


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"the sensitive British nation?" Shouldn't that be "the now self governing Irish Province?"

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