The homophobic First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Reverend Ian Paisley, is to stand down in May and quit his post as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The 81-year-old will retain his seats in the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly.

Rev Paisley said: “I came to this decision a few weeks ago when I was thinking very much about the conference and what was going to come after the conference.

“I thought that it is a marker, a very big marker and it would be a very appropriate time for me to bow out.”

In the 1970s the First Minister spearheaded a campaign against the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, “Save Ulster From Sodomy,” and as recently as 2005 he led opposition to civil partnerships in the province.

In recent weeks, he has faced pressure from his own party after his son, Ian Paisley Junior was forced to resign from the Northern Ireland Executive over links to a property developer.

Last year, Paisley Jnr caused outrage within the gay community after he said: “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and – without caring about it – harm society.

“That doesn’t mean to say that I hate them. I mean, I hate what they do.”

Mr Paisley Snr said he will not interfere with the election of his successor: “This is not the Church of Rome,” he told Ulster Television.

“This is not Apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me.

“The person will succeed me when the mark is on the paper and the ballot is cast.

“Whoever that will be will have my support and encouragement and if he wants to take my advice, he will get that advice if he asks for it, but I will not be sitting like Putin in Russia saying to the president ‘This is the way you have to go’.

“When I make a break, it is a break.”

Conservative Party leader David Cameron told the Press Association: “Ian Paisley has been a formidable figure in British politics for many decades.

“His term as First Minister of Northern Ireland has helped to forge a peace which many thought was impossible to achieve.

“Dr Paisley’s willingness to work closely with former opponents to build a new future for Northern Ireland has captured the world’s imagination and earned him the gratitude of the people of Northern Ireland.”