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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 20:27 GMT
Did he jump or was he pushed?
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
Some DUP voters were unhappy with Mr Paisley's relationship with Martin McGuinness
Stormont has been rife with speculation for some time that Ian Paisley's days as first minister and leader were numbered.

"Paisley must go" has been whispered in the tea rooms and canteen with increasing volume, not least over recent days.

The question was when and how he would leave.

Some DUP members, when pressed, would suggest he would still be first minister come May but could not say whether he would still be in office by autumn.

Others claimed not to know.

What was clear however was the lack of support in the ranks for the "Paisley brand", and that seemed to apply not just to the so-called pragmatists or modernisers but to the traditional fundamentalists as well.

Where there was once unquestioning loyalty, there was now seething resentment.

"A disaster," was how one insider described the promotion of Ian Paisley Jnr to the Policing Board.

Indeed, there was deep shock and anger that the promotion came, only days after he quit his junior minister's post.

What was clear however was the lack of support in the ranks for the "Paisley brand", and that seemed to apply not just to the so-called pragmatists or modernisers but to the traditional fundamentalists as well

"My jaw dropped," was how another DUP insider put it when he heard the news on Friday night.

The expectation among the rank and file had been that Mr Paisley Jnr would keep a low profile on the back benches.

The anger in some circles was compounded by comments he has made on the BBC airwaves in recent days, not least his assertion that he would back Seymour Sweeney's planning appeal on the Giant's Causeway visitor's centre.

This would effectively put the MLA in collision with a decision made by DUP minister Arlene Foster.

Granted, she is not in charge of planning appeals - indeed it is the Office of First and Deputy First Minister that looks after this area.

But the point is, many in the party had expected Ian Paisley Jnr to quietly serve on the back benches - not court more controversy.

What's more, long-standing members of the DUP - who had fought hard to get to the top of the unionist heap - were alarmed by the Dromore by-election.

There were deep concerns that the party's hard-fought gains were slipping away.

And party sources said there were common complaints on the doorsteps of Dromore about the "chuckle brothers" and the negative stories in the media about Ian Paisley Jnr.

However, no senior party figure - or junior party figure for that matter - has been willing to break ranks and articulate these views in the media.

Rather, there has been some anonymous briefings that the first minister was coming under pressure to go.

The party could ill afford to be seen to push him out.

Far better for the party, not least electorally, was the "managed transition," where Ian Paisley was seen to go on his own terms.

Consequently Ian Paisley has taken pains to point out that he has gone on his own terms at the right time.

But has he? -Or has he been left with no choice because his support within the party has evaporated?

Just days ago, in the Belfast Telegraph, Baroness Paisley declared her wishes that "Ian stay in the job."

She declared her husband was "fit, strong and able".

Did she mean until May? Or had she another date in mind?

Consequently Ian Paisley has taken pains to point out that he has gone on his own terms at the right time

Certainly when Ian Paisley first took his post he said he wanted to serve the full term and has quashed all speculation in recent months that he would soon step down.

Maybe he did so to avoid being seen as a lame duck first minister.

If that was the case, then why opt for a post-dated resignation?

Between now and May, Mr Paisley will increasingly be seen as a lame duck first minister, yesterday's man.

There have been clues for some months however that Mr Paisley's grip on power was waning, not least when he announced last September he was stepping down as moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church.

That was a clue that among his traditional base, there was deep discontent.

Speculation since then is that he was pushed.

And, whatever Mr Paisley says, there will be plenty of people saying he has jumped before he was pushed from the party.

Others suggested the party's nightmare was facing a future election with "Chuckle Brother" posters to contend with.

The second indication that his grip on power was slipping was when Ian Paisley Jnr announced his resignation as junior minister.

The fact is the fortunes of father and son were tied.

Ian Paisley could not protect his son and that was significant.

Also, without his son by his side, Ian Paisley Snr had lost a valuable asset.

It is now expected that Peter Robinson will succeed, at long last, Dr Paisley as leader and first minister.

Nigel Dodds is expected to become the new deputy leader. There is likely to be a smooth transition.

As for Ian Paisley his political career as MP and MLA goes on.



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