United States officials were privately briefed that Peter Robinson was likely to replace Ian Paisley as DUP leader in a “Blair to Brown-type deal”, according to a leaked cable.
The claims are contained in a confidential dispatch reporting on Mr Paisley’s resignation as First Minister and party leader in March 2008.
In the cable, NIO officials are quoted as saying that they do not believe the resignation would destabilise the political process here.
Mr Paisley became First Minister in May 2007 following the restoration of a power-sharing Executive at Stormont.
The day after his resignation was announced, an official from the US embassy in London discussed the situation with two advisers from the NIO, identified in the cable as Katy Petaffe and John Todd.
Their discussion is detailed in the dispatch, which is classified CONFIDENTIAL/NOFORN (no foreigners).
“Political Advisors in the British Government's Northern Ireland Office told the Embassy March 5 that the NIO, ‘broadly speaking, doesn't think Paisley’s resignation will be destabilising’,” the cable reports.
“Todd confirmed that Paisley’s resignation was not unexpected, given that Paisley Jr had been forced from office earlier in the year.”
At the time it was widely expected that Mr Robinson, then deputy DUP leader, would succeed Mr Paisley.
The cable adds: “It would be up to the DUP to pick its new leader, said Todd.
“Both Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds were names being considered for the leadership, according to Todd, with many suggesting that Robinson may become the successor in a ‘Blair to Brown-type’ deal.”
It was not until five weeks later, on April 14 2008, that Mr Robinson was officially named as the new DUP leader.
The cable goes on to add: “Todd said that the choice was up to the DUP; the NIO was uninvolved and agnostic as to who should lead the party.”
Mr Paisley’s date for his departure was planned to coincide with the US-NI Investment Conference in May 2008, and the cable details American concern at its impact.
“Poloff (embassy official) asked how Todd and the NIO assess the announcement vis a vis its effect on the Conference, which the USG has seen as a means to solidify the peace in Northern Ireland and in which it has expended much interest, time and political capital,” the cable adds.
“Todd said Paisley’s announcement could be viewed as positive, in that it may stimulate interest in the Conference, as invitees may consider their participation as their only chance to watch a historically-important political figure in Northern Ireland make his final, grand gesture.”