Peter Robinson yesterday confirmed that rumours he is to quit politics within weeks are true – but insisted that he is not being pushed out of the DUP by internal critics.
Despite growing rumblings of discontent within the DUP at his leadership, the First Minister insisted that he is leaving politics on his own terms.
Focus is now turning on Mr Robinson’s likely successor, with the likelihood that the leader will not also fill the position of First Minister.
DUP veterans Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell both declined opportunities to rule themselves out of the internal battle to fill the top positions.
It is widely believed within the party that the most likely scenario will see no leadership contest, with a coronation of Nigel Dodds as leader and Arlene Foster as First Minister.
Less than three weeks ago, the News Letter reported that Mr Robinson was under internal pressure to quit and that many within the DUP believed that he would do so around the time of the party conference, which begins today.
At the time, a senior aide to Mr Robinson denied the claims and attempted to dissuade this newspaper from reporting the comments.
Yesterday Mr Robinson, who is 67 next month, said that his recent health scare was not the reason for his departure, which he said would come around the New Year period, leaving his successor sufficient time to prepare for next May’s Assembly election.
Last year Mr Robinson blasted internal critics who he denounced as “people with the strategic vision of a lemming”. But yesterday he denied that he was under any internal party pressure to stand aside.
“It’s entirely on my own terms,” he said. “I am probably the first unionist leader who will say afterwards that I left entirely on my own terms.”
He added: “The fact is if I wanted to stay the party officers and party would have been fully supportive, the reality of course is I am almost 67 years of age, these are five-year terms we are looking into – it’s unrealistic to go on for a third term in the top post.”