Senior Democratic Unionists are hopeful today that there will be a seamless handover from the Rev Ian Paisley to the next leader of his party, following his decision to stand down after 37 years.
Mr Paisley announced yesterday that he would quit as leader and Stormont First Minister in May, making way for a new generation.
He will remain as the MP and Assembly member for North Antrim.
Stormont Finance Minister and DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson is the strong favourite to take over.
Economy Minister Nigel Dodds has also been mentioned as a possible leadership candidate.
But senior sources predicted today that there would be no divisive contest, with 59-year-old Mr Robinson likely to take over as leader and First Minister and 49-year-old Mr Dodds becoming his deputy as part of a dream ticket.
“In theory, there could be a contest,” one authoritative source said.
“However, my hunch is there won’t be. If I was to wager money – and I am not a betting man – I would suspect Peter will be party leader.
“There would be a view after almost 29 years of waiting in the wings he has earned the right.”
Under DUP rules, the party’s Assembly Group will have the first say on who becomes leader.
Party officers will convene an annual general meeting of the Assembly Group to choose a leader and deputy leader.
Senior sources speculated this meeting could take place just before the investment conference to guarantee a smooth handover.
Their recommendation will go to the party executive for approval.
“It is unlikely the party executive would reject the Assembly Group’s choice,” another source insisted.
Mr Paisley announced yesterday he would stand aside after an investment conference on May 7 to 9 aimed at American businessmen, which Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are expected to attend.
Mr Paisley said he had decided to stand down after the conference because it seemed to be the most appropriate time for him to quit frontline politics.
But he would not be drawn on who should take over.
“This is not the Church of Rome,” he told Ulster Television, “This is not Apostolic succession and I have no right to say who will succeed me.
“The person will succeed me when the mark is on the paper and the ballot is cast.
“Whoever that will be will have my support and encouragement and if he wants to take my advice, he will get that advice if he asks for it, but I will not be sitting like Putin in Russia saying to the president, ’This is the way you have to go’.
“When I make a break, it is a break.”
The conference coincides with the first anniversary of the DUP and Sinn Féin-led power-sharing executive at Stormont.
“We want to ensure when the transition happens that Dr Paisley is given the respect he deserves,” a source said.
“People are very conscious the DUP owes Dr Paisley a huge debt. He has steered the party through some very difficult times when we were getting kicked about the country.
“He persevered and brought us to the point where we are today the largest political party in Northern Ireland. That is no mean feat.
“The next leader faces a huge task building on that.”
As tributes poured in from Belfast, London and Dublin, Mr Robinson said Northern Ireland and the DUP would forever be indebted to Mr Paisley.
“He is truly a unionist colossus and he can be justifiably proud that today unionist politics and Northern Ireland’s position within the union are stronger than any point during his extraordinary career,” the East Belfast MP said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “Ian Paisley has made a huge contribution to political life in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
“His commitment and dedication to public service deserve our gratitude. Progress on bringing a lasting peace to Northern Ireland would not have been possible without his immense courage and leadership.”
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams extended his best wishes to Mr Paisley and commended him for his crucial role in forging the agreement with Sinn Féin last year which restored devolution.
Mr Adams said: “I want to commend the positive contribution Mr Paisley has made in recent times. The agreement that he and I made last March cleared the way for the restoration of the political institutions.”
Mr Ahern, who struck up an unlikely working relationship with Mr Paisley that deepened over the last year after a political lifetime intensely opposed to each other’s viewpoint, said he made the “big moves” to make the peace process work.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t spend most of my political life taking a different point of view (to Mr Paisley), I did,” he said.
“But when it came down to making the Good Friday Agreement work and to having an inclusive executive in Northern Ireland and to have North-South bodies, he made the big moves.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair praised Mr Paisley’s “decisive” contribution, saying the man “famous for saying ’no’ would go down in history for saying ’yes’.”