- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004

LONDON — Ian Paisley has been ordered by doctors to retire, a prospect that has plunged his Unionist followers in Northern Ireland into a state of panic and the peace talks into fresh crisis.

The grand old man of Ulster politics, and the figure now seen as the lynchpin in the peace negotiations, is expected to miss crucial talks on the province’s future this week because of a medical condition that has been shrouded in secrecy.

The health of the 78-year-old Mr. Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party is the largest political grouping in Northern Ireland, is causing great concern within the Free Presbyterian Church he founded in the 1960s.

The congregation at Mr. Paisley’s Martyrs’ Memorial Church in East Belfast has held a series of emergency prayer meetings.

Rumors that he has a heart condition have been repeatedly denied by Mr. Paisley’s aides. However, the Unionist leader spent 10 days in a hospital earlier this month undergoing tests after feeling ill while on holiday.

His son, Ian Paisley Jr., admitted that his firebrand father had been ill, but insisted that he would soon be able to resume his hectic political schedule and angrily dismissed reports that his father had a leaking heart valve.

“Dad is looking forward to getting back to work in the autumn. He has had tests, he is on medication and he is convalescing — but to suggest that he is finished as a major political figure is just wishful thinking.

“My dad is convalescing and he will be fit to resume his political roles at every level shortly,” the younger Mr. Paisley said.

Behind the scenes, however, the frantic search for a replacement is under way, with the younger Mr. Paisley and the party’s deputy leader, Peter Robinson, jockeying for position.

Friends of the elderly leader say that he has been advised to retire from the British Parliament. He has already resigned his seat in the European Parliament, in an effort to reduce his workload.

One senior party figure said: “We understand the family’s desire for privacy, but we are getting confusing signals. We are being told that Mr. Paisley is fit and well but if you ask when he will be out and about again, you don’t get an answer.”

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