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Peter Robinson: I am stepping down as First Minister on my own terms

Northern Ireland's retiring First Minister Peter Robinson has insisted he is leaving politics on his own terms.

Mr Robinson, who is also resigning as Democratic Unionist leader, said he is stepping down content that in his 40-year career he has done his best for Northern Ireland and the cause of unionism.

The 66-year-old said he would exit around the new year period, leaving his successor sufficient time to prepare for next May's Assembly election.

His announcement, which was widely expected, came days after he struck a political deal with his partners-in-government Sinn Fein, and the UK and Irish governments, which effectively saved the power-sharing coalition from threatened collapse.

Mr Robinson faced criticised from some quarters over his handling of the recent political crisis at Stormont and was also forced to strongly deny allegations of corruption, levelled under parliamentary privilege by a loyalist blogger, related to Northern Ireland's biggest ever property sale.

But the DUP leader insisted he was not under any internal party pressure to stand aside. He also denied his departure was due to the heart attack he suffered in May.

"It's entirely on my own terms," Mr Robinson said of his retirement. "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.

"So I look forward to the new challenges my life will have, but I think over these last number of years Northern Ireland has made very real progress."

Mr Robinson said he does not care how history judges him, but said he is satisfied he has always done his best.

"All any individual can do is to do their best and, if they have been genuinely trying to move Northern Ireland forward, then how history judges them is something for future generations," he said.

"I am content that I have done my best, I have laid out a strategy that I think is in the interests of the unionist community."

He added: "Politics is a wee bit like a river - it continues to flow, there's never any end point, so you really have to decide at what stage you step off and end your journey.

"And in Northern Ireland politics there are so many developments, so many layers, it is always difficult to find a chapter end, but I think if you look over the last few days with the agreement that has been reached, the fact we have an Assembly election coming up in a few months' time, it seems to be exactly the right time to stand down and to give a new leader the opportunity to get settled in before the election comes round."

Mr Robinson said he had wanted to stabilise the power-sharing administration in Belfast before stepping aside.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds will be among the favourites to take over as DUP leader.

However with Mr Dodds based in Westminster, another senior party figure could take on the role of Stormont First Minister.

Finance Minister Arlene Foster has been touted as a potential leader of the power-sharing coalition.

Mr Robinson, who replaced Ian Paisley as first minister and DUP leader in 2008, said he had wanted to secure a number of specific objectives before leaving - including saving the power-sharing government, the DUP retaking the East Belfast Westminster seat he lost in 2010 and setting a date for Northern Ireland to determine its own corporation tax rate.

With all those accomplished, he said the time was right to step aside.

Tuesday's Fresh Start agreement resolved the wrangle over the non-implementation of the UK Government's welfare reforms, and a number of other disputes which had pushed the coalition Executive to the verge of collapse, including the fall-out from a murder linked to the Provisional IRA and an acute budgetary crisis.

However, the accord has been fiercely criticised by victims' campaigners for failing to secure consensus on new mechanisms to address the legacy of the Troubles.

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DUP's Peter Robinson: I'm standing down within weeks 

Peter Robinson departure: Former foe Gerry Adams leads well-wishes 

Martin McGuinness pays tribute to 'friend' Peter Robinson

Martin McGuinness has paid tribute to Northern Ireland's departing First Minister Peter Robinson, saying he now counts his long-time political foe as a "friend".

The Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister at Stormont said his retiring counterpart, who is also stepping down as Democratic Unionist leader, deserves credit for his role in the peace process.

In a widely expected announcement, Mr Robinson, 66, said he will not contest next May's Assembly election and is likely to leave his post at the head of the powersharing coalition in the coming weeks.

The move comes days after he signed a political deal with Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments to avert the collapse of the administration.

Mr McGuinness said Mr Robinson had informed him of his intentions well before it was announced publicly.

"I have always given credit to Peter for recognising that the only way forward in this country was for us to work together," said the Sinn Fein veteran.

The warm relationship Mr McGuinness struck up with the late Ian Paisley in their time together at the head of the Stormont Executive has been well documented - in fact their unlikely friendship is the subject of a forthcoming feature film.

While Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness's seven years in office has not been characterised with the same bonhomie, the republican insisted he has developed a strong relationship with his unionist partner in government.

"I think he was a very strong friend, like Ian Paisley, of the peace process," he said.

"And Ian paisley and I, incredibly, developed a friendship which existed until the day he died. So I do regard Peter Robinson as a friend, yes."

Mr Robinson said he had wanted to stabilise the powersharing administration in Belfast before stepping aside.

The experienced politician suffered a heart attack earlier this year but has insisted he had made his mind up to leave before the health scare.

There had been growing speculation Mr Robinson would outline his departure plans at the DUP's annual conference this weekend.

In the event, he confirmed his exit in a pre-conference interview with the Belfast Telegraph.

"I think it would be disrespectful to the party membership if I was to go through a conference with the pretence that I would be leading the party into the next election," he said.

"I think they have a right to know what the circumstances are."

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds will be among the favourites to take over as DUP leader.

However, with Mr Dodds based in Westminster, another senior party figure could take on the role of Stormont First Minister.

Northern Ireland's finance minister Arlene Foster has been touted as a potential leader of the powersharing coalition.

Mr Robinson said he would remain in the post until Tuesday's Fresh Start agreement is "bedded in" - a period he indicated could last into the early new year.

The East Belfast Assembly member, who replaced Ian Paisley as first minister and DUP leader in 2008, said he had wanted to secure a number of specific objectives before leaving - namely stabilising the powersharing government, the DUP retaking the East Belfast Westminster seat he lost in 2010 and setting a date for Northern Ireland to determine its own corporation tax rate.

With all those accomplished, he said the time was right to step aside.

"For anyone who is not very young to go beyond two terms is stretching it," he said.

"There are massive pressures on anybody in this job. You do need to renew political leadership, bringing in people with perhaps more energy and people with new ideas."

Tuesday's Fresh Start agreement resolved the wrangle over the non-implementation of the UK Government's welfare reforms, and a number of other disputes which had pushed the coalition Executive to the verge of collapse, including the fall-out from a murder linked to the Provisional IRA and an acute budgetary crisis.

However, the accord has been fiercely criticised by victims' campaigners for failing to secure consensus on new mechanisms to address the legacy of the Troubles.

Sammy Wilson pays tribute

Responding to the announcement DUP MP Sammy Wilson said: "I have known Peter for more than forty years. For a large part of that time we were both elected representatives in the same area. We just weren't colleagues.  We were friends. Throughout those years he has shown a complete focus on and dedication to the people he represents. His long career in East Belfast was one of hard work and securing the best outcomes for the area.

"More latterly, as a government minister, I worked alongside him in the Northern Ireland Executive. His capacity for getting to grips with difficult and detailed issues was immense and unrivaled. During nearly eight years as the First Minister he has dealt with a wide range of difficult matters that might have bested other politicians.

"Peter always thinks long-term and he can be proud that he presided over the longest period of unbroken devolution since the start of the Troubles and as he leaves front-line politics he can also take pride in knowing that he has built the basis upon which devolution can continue in Northern Ireland. 

"Peter has been with us from the early days. He traveled the length and breadth of country building the structures of the party.  As he retires he can do so with pride.  He led the party to its most successful ever Assembly election. Whilst he is stepping back from the leader's job, I know his advice and wisdom will always be welcomed."

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