Peter Robinson has made clear that he intends to lead the DUP for years to come, in an attempt to end rumours that he is close to quitting or being ousted.
In years gone by Mr Robinson had suggested he would retire by 65, an age he will reach in December.
But, speaking in New York, Mr Robinson said that he intended to fight the next three elections as leader. The date of the next Assembly election is currently set for 2015 but the Government – and the DUP – want it pushed back to 2016.
If he stays until after the mid-2016 Assembly elections, he would be 67 at the time.
In an interview with BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor, Mark Devenport – the second broadcast interview in as many days as the DUP leader re-emerges from his holiday – Mr Robinson aggressively dismissed claims he may quit.
In the days after Mr Robinson pulled the plug on the Maze peace centre, DUP MP David Simpson told his local newspaper, the Portadown Times, that “the leadership ﬁnally listened to the people” on the Maze.
He also declined to comment when asked if Mr Robinson’s role in the Maze plan left his leadership untenable.
But Mr Robinson told the BBC: “I have full support within the party. No-one has approached me and asked me to go. There is overwhelming support among the senior members of the party, some of whom have been exercised because of some of the press stunts on the issue to ensure that I wouldn’t succumb to that kind of pressure.”
He added: “I’m in as strong a position as I ever have been. The Democratic Unionist Party is a party unlike any others, in terms of the loyalty that they give their leadership, and that continues to be the case.”
Mr Robinson denied that he had got out of touch with unionism and been outmanoeuvred by his critics, and insisted that it was a “fairly minor issue” and lashed out at journalists: “It is the press who are exercised; it is the press who, during the silly season of July and August, seek either to embellish stories or to invent stories and we’ve had plenty of both over the last number of weeks.”
Asked if he would remain leader for the next three elections, he said that “a number of leading members of the party have asked me to make clear that I do intend to see those elections through, and I do”.
After meeting Mr Robinson for the first time since the Maze decision, Martin McGuinness last night gave a fairly muted reaction but insisted the peace centre remained “a Programme for Government commitment”.