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McGuinness leads tributes to the retiring First Minister

By Noel McAdam

Martin McGuinness has led tributes to Peter Robinson, whose dramatic departure announcement in the Belfast Telegraph marked another watershed in Northern Ireland politics.

The Deputy First Minister said he fully recognised the "enormous personal contribution" the DUP leader had made, "building on the work of his predecessor" Lord Bannside, Ian Paisley.

The joint office-holders never achieved the relaxed, wise-cracking relationship which developed between Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness - who were given the nickname the Chuckle Brothers - although they got on well in private, away from the cameras. "I have never hated Peter Robinson - I don't think Peter Robinson hates me," Mr McGuinness said. "I think we have developed a good working relationship over the years, albeit we come from different allegiances."

Even the DUP's political nemesis, former ally Jim Allister, praised Mr Robinson as "undoubtedly a very able politician" who he wished well in retirement.

But the TUV leader also added it was hard to escape the conclusion that a "primary driver" in this week's Stormont deal "was to facilitate his retirement, something which causes me further concern."

Just two days after they co-chaired the talks leading to the 'Fresh Start' deal, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Dublin Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan also added to the accolades.

Mrs Villiers said Mr Robinson had championed the interests of Northern Ireland "with unparalleled effectiveness, determination and dedication" and was key to the agreement with Sinn Fein.

Mr Flanagan said he wanted to acknowledge Mr Robinson's leading role in bringing stability to Stormont and had been "very sad" to hear about his intentions.

The two politicians tipped to replace Peter Robinson as First Minister and party leader joined the chorus of praise as the DUP began to come to terms with a new era of politics.

Arlene Foster, who has twice stood in as acting First Minister, said she was "extremely sad" over the "wrench" which would leave a void very difficult to fill, but "in many ways no one deserves a long and happy retirement more than Peter".

"He is without equal within unionism for his strategic ability to chart a course through many difficult periods," she added.

And Nigel Dodds, who is viewed as mostly likely to become the next DUP chief, said: "Peter has been a towering figure in the DUP since its foundation. He has dedicated his life to the defence of the Union and building a better life for people."

"There is no doubt that Northern Ireland would not have made the progress it has without his vision, leadership and political skills," the current deputy leader added.

With the party preparing for its annual conference, which opens today, even the MLA Mr Robinson replaced as Health Minister said the First Minister would be "hard to replace".

Edwin Poots, who got into hot water after predicting Mr Robinson would stand down, said that he had no "personal gripes or issues" with Mr Robinson and he believed history will be "rather kinder" to the former East Belfast MP.

The Lagan Valley MLA also said that he "most definitely" supported the plan to appoint separate people as First Minister and party leader and made clear he was fully supportive of both Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds taking the roles.

Asked if he felt vindicated over his statement last year, he added: "For me it's not about that. Peter had clearly indicated he was going to go around retirement age. There was no secret about that.

"I have no personal gripes or issues with Peter and wish him extremely well for a long and healthy retirement. In terms of Peter's career, the vast majority has been positive."

Belfast Telegraph


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