The DUP has denied claims from within the party that Peter Robinson is likely to resign within weeks.
Figures at various levels within the party believe that if a deal is reached in the Stormont talks, the DUP leader, who suffered a heart attack in May and has been under enormous political pressure, will announce that he is to leave around the time of the party conference next month.
There is concern within the party at how it would fare if an election was called, with one senior figure telling the News Letter that the DUP has been “haemorrhaging” support over recent weeks.
In relation to the date of Mr Robinson’s departure, the individual said: “The sooner the better.”
Figures close to the First Minister moved to play down the speculation, saying that Mr Robinson is entirely focused on getting a deal in the talks, rather than thinking about his future.
A DUP spokesman said: “The party is not aware of any plans for him to go at this stage.”
Nigel Dodds is expected to take over as leader, with Arlene Foster assuming Mr Robinson’s role as First Minister.
Despite what appear to be growing rumblings of discontent at his leadership, Mr Robinson still has support within the party and there is not the public clamour to remove him which blighted David Trimble in his final years as UUP leader.
Nevertheless, there is concern across the party that it has lost support and that Mr Robinson is now unpopular with voters – just seven months from an Assembly election.
Over recent weeks the party has been under pressure over its decision to have ‘in-out’ ministers in response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan, and then last week’s decision to re-enter the Executive just an hour after a report which said that the IRA did not decommission all its weapons and that IRA members believe the Army Council effectively runs Sinn Fein.
One DUP politician who has been publicly restrained about Mr Robinson’s leadership told the News Letter: “He’d need to go soon.”
Another party source said that the party was taking “a pounding” over its decision to re-enter the Executive despite the revelation that the IRA did not decommission all its weapons and the allegation that the IRA Army Council effectively runs Sinn Fein.
And he said that the decision to appoint Mr Robinson’s former special adviser, Emma Pengelly, as a junior minister in the First Minister’s office had been met with incredulity in the party.
He said: “Can you imagine Cameron doing that – putting one of his advisers in as a minister after getting a big pay-off as his adviser?”
And, in reference to Mr Robinson’s departure, a senior party figure said: “The sooner the better. We’re haemorrhaging support.”
The individual, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We’re trying to be as disciplined as possible; we’re not being ruthless about it.”
A fifth DUP member, a prominent politician, told the News Letter: “I’d be most surprised if he’s not away by Christmas. It would be better if he made his mind up himself rather than being pushed.”
Another DUP member said that they thought the party needed a change of direction under a new leader and said that there is widespread belief that Mr Robinson is very close to the end of his leadership.
When asked if Mr Robinson is to resign within weeks, a DUP spokesman said: “He has indicated that he will step down when the time is right to do that. There is no vacancy at present so there is no comment to make.
“The party is not aware of any plans for him to go at this stage.
“He is involved in the talks process at the moment. If we are to secure a successful outcome for the talks process, both he and the party’s focus will remain on that outcome.”
‘Coronation’ of Dodds expected
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds is the overwhelming favourite to succeed Mr Robinson as DUP leader – and there is unlikely to even be a contest.
Under the DUP’s rules, it will be for the 38-strong MLA group to choose the party leader.
If Mr Dodds does face a challenger, it will break new ground for the DUP as it would be the first time in the party’s 44-year history that it would have seen a leadership election.
And the party is likely to split its top roles in a similar way to that adopted by Sinn Fein.
The First Minister is widely expected to be Arlene Foster, who is seen as Mr Robinson’s preferred successor and who he has twice appointed as acting First Minister.
That role could see Mrs Foster also assume the position of deputy leader.
However, some on the right of the party would like to see someone such as Gregory Campbell as deputy leader, effectively giving the right of the party the top two posts and giving them more internal control than the First Minister.
But there are still rumours that East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson could have a leadership role as he is seen by some within the party as someone who can unite the Paisleyite and Robinson factions.