In his final speech as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, the 66-year-old veteran politician said the time was right to bow out and let the “next generation” take over.
“My race is nearly run; advancing years and failing health bring with them a sense of mortality.”
On Thursday, Mr Robinson had said he would step down after a 45-year political career. The widely expected announcement came just days after he signed a political deal with Sinn Fein and the Irish and British governments to cement powersharing in Northern Ireland.
Robinson suffered a heart attack earlier this year, but had previously made up his mind to leave.
On Saturday, he received a rapturous reception from hundreds of delegates, who had packed into the La Mon Hotel, on the edge of east Belfast. They cheered, whistled, applauded and waved union flags, as he entered the bustling conference suite surrounded by photographers.
As a founding member of the DUP, in the early 1970s, Mr Robinson recalled how he transformed the party from an “irritant to the political establishment” into the largest unionist grouping at Stormont.
The steely tactician, widely regarded as the brains behind Ian Paisley’s fiery bluster, has been DUP leader and first minister since 2008 — longer than he had anticipated, he revealed.
“My work is almost done, and now it is time for the next generation to step forward,” Mr Robinson said. “I wanted to make sure that I was handing over the reins of a political process that was stable and secure for the long-term.
“After a seemingly endless process, I am delighted that we have finally reached agreement on the way forward. We have resolved all those toxic issues that threatened the continuation of devolution.”
He said devolution was the best way to secure stability and hailed the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement struck this week.
“There is no discomfort in this deal for unionists,” he said. “There is no pain for those who want political progress. I can, with absolute confidence and assurance, recommend it to the people of Northern Ireland.” He also took a swipe at opponents, branding those who have rejected the deal as “wreckers” and “non-achievers” who belong to a “do-nothing coalition”.
There was applause when he poked fun at the rival Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). “How many Ulster Unionists does it take to change a light bulb? None, the Ulster Unionists can’t change anything,” said Mr Robinson.
Among those in the audience was North Belfast MP, Nigel Dodds, who is among the favourites to take over as DUP leader, as well as finance minister, Arlene Foster, tipped to be the new first minister.
Mr Robinson said: “Whoever the party chooses, I will give them my wholehearted and unqualified support. I will offer them advice in private and nothing other than support in public. That’s what fidelity and dignity require and what solidarity and friendship deserve”.