Peter Robinson will be the next leader of the Democratic Unionist party and Northern Ireland’s next First Minister, it was confirmed last night.
A meeting of the 120 members of the party’s executive committee backed the unanimous view of the DUP Assembly members and elevated the Belfast East MP, who has been deputy leader since 1980.
Belfast North MP Nigel Dodds was elected unopposed to the deputy role.
“The DUP and Northern Ireland owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr Paisley for his leadership over many decades,” they said in a joint statement.
“He has a unique ability and it would be foolish for anyone to try and mimic his style of leadership.”
Their elevation brings to an end Ian Paisley’s domination of a party he created in 1971.
For decades identified with bigotry, intransigence and sectarianism, the ‘Big Man’ transformed into an unlikely angel of peace in recent years.
He took the DUP into government with the decidedly pro-gay Sinn Fein last May.
The 82-year-old will retain his seats in the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly when he stands down as First Minister in June.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness will also stand down as Deputy First Minister at that time, but will be reappointed to the post alongside Mr Robinson.
In the 1970s Dr Paisley 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 months, 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 Robinson’s election as DUP leader is unlikely to change the homophobic attitudes of many of his party, but it is expected that like his predecessor he will continue to abide by the equality policies of the Northern Ireland government.
The DUP do not approve of gay equality, but they do not regard it an issue serious enough to keep them out of power.
Edwin Poots, the minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, is a case in point. He is renowned for his homophobic opinions.
As a councillor in Lisburn he tried to ban gay and lesbian couples from holding civil partnerships in the town hall.
However, he did not block grants to Belfast Pride despite pressure from DUP grassroots.
Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds are viewed as more secular, urban and pragmatic than Dr Paisley, a religious leader representing a rural, Bible-belt constituency.
While DUP members such as Mr Poots continue to make homophobic comments – in February he was expressing his view that a gay rugby team is a form of “apartheid” – gay rights legislation such as goods and services protection and civil partnerships were imposed from London during periods of direct rule.
The DUP can complain about them, but cannot alter or repeal them without the consent of Sinn Fein.
Mr Robinson’s election as leader of the party marks an usual coincidence whereby the heads of government of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will all have left office in the space of a year and been replaced by their Finance Minister.