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As Paisley departs, survival of power-sharing government falls to icy heir-apparent

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The hot favorite to become the new Protestant leader in Northern Ireland is Peter Robinson, who first gained international attention two decades ago by leading a mob attack on an Irish border village.

While he since has grown into one of Northern Ireland’s most polished and formidable politicians, many people wonder whether the likely successor to the charismatic Ian Paisley will be as willing – or able – to keep governing alongside Roman Catholics in the fledgling power-sharing administration for this British territory.

Robinson has been the 81-year-old Paisley’s savvy and steely deputy for three decades within the Democratic Unionist Party and is the finance minister in the 10-month-old government.

Several government insiders say they expect Robinson to be elected unchallenged as party leader and take over as the administration chief to replace the increasingly frail Paisley when he steps down from both posts in May.

Paisley founded the Democratic Unionists 37 years ago to swing a wrecking ball at compromise with Catholics, but the blunt-speaking evangelist transformed the party over the past three years into a champion of power-sharing.

It has never had another leader, and analysts agree Robinson stands no chance of marshaling the power of Paisley’s personality cult.

The big question is what that will mean for power-sharing, the central achievement of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday accord, the U.S.-brokered peace pact that will be 10 years old next month.

Robinson, not Paisley, has been the party’s dominant negotiator. He is widely credited with persuading Paisley to stay at the table – or at least empowering himself to take the lead while “Dr. No” took breaks from round-the-clock talks – during critical diplomatic junctures.

But some politicians fear that the changing of the guard will inevitably destabilize the administration because many Protestants oppose sharing power, and their alienation will flare once Paisley leaves the stage.

Britain and Ireland devised power-sharing as the best way to bring both sides’ extremists together in compromise and consign to history the 1968-98 conflict that left more than 3,700 dead. Both governments have credited the unique respect that Paisley enjoys among Protestant hard-liners as essential to last year’s breakthrough.

Robinson, 59, first grabbed widespread notice in 1986 when he led a mob that smashed up an Irish village and beat up two police officers.

Much like Paisley, Robinson flirted with anti-Catholic paramilitarism, served a prison sentence for inciting violence, and has mellowed over the past decade of peacemaking. Unlike his fiery-tonged mentor, Robinson displays none of Paisley’s warmth and humor alongside his new Catholic colleagues in government.

Many analysts say Robinson’s icy public demeanor masks a heart burning to exercise power, and that may be exactly what Protestant hard-liners need to make them feel comfortable again, because the skillful behind-the-scenes politician will avoid public chumminess with Catholics.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, however, is concerned about Democratic Unionist dissidents who were angered by Paisley’s U-turn on working with Catholics. He worries they will seize on the leadership change to push for an end to cooperation.

Adams, whose Catholic-backed party is an equal partner with the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland’s four-party administration, delivered a string of concessions to win Paisley’s trust.

The outlawed Irish Republican Army in 2005 disarmed and formally abandoned its aim of separating Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom by force. Sinn Fein then recognized the authority of the Northern Ireland police early in 2007, and two months later Paisley and Adams struck a deal at their first-ever meeting.

Adams noted the Democratic Unionists under Paisley were already resisting two key steps sought by Sinn Fein: spending millions to promote the Gaelic language and transferring the police and courts to local control. The British and Irish governments back both steps as part of the balancing act between British Protestant and Irish Catholic interests.

Sinn Fein wants Britain to give one of its government ministers control of the police and justice system. The Democratic Unionists – bitter at the idea an IRA veteran involved in killing police officers could end up overseeing them – have repeatedly rejected a target of May for that to happen.

The highest-profile Democratic Unionist to quit the party over power-sharing, Jim Allister, is building a new hard-line party, Traditional Unionist Voice, which argues against working with Sinn Fein while the IRA remains in existence, hibernating and capable of remobilizing.

In February, Allister’s party helped give the Democratic Unionists their first electoral setback after a decade of victories — a loss in a by-election for a vacant Northern Ireland Assembly seat.

Since then, the Democratic Unionists “have been in something of a blind panic, and changing the guard was their answer,” Allister said. “Of course it is not the personalities but the policies which need to change.”

Shawn Pogatchnik has covered Northern Ireland for The Associated Press since 1991.

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