Peter Robinson has said "Northern Ireland is a place transformed" in his final leader's speech to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference.
He told his party devolution had brought "peace and prosperity" and added that he looked back "with pride at all that we together have achieved".
He said after three years of problems at Stormont, the latest 'Fresh Start' deal means "politics can work again".
Mr Robinson announced his retirement on Thursday, two days after the agreement was struck between the DUP, Sinn Féin and the British and Irish governments.
The Fresh Start document addressed some but not all of the issues that had caused months of political deadlock and placed the future of devolution in doubt.
Mr Robinson told the DUP's annual party conference on Saturday "my work is almost done, and now it is time for the next generation to step forward".
"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."
"So as I prepare to bow out I do so in the knowledge that the province is on safe ground and this party is in good shape to take Northern Ireland forward."
Mr Robinson was cheered and given a standing ovation as he took to the podium at the La Mon House hotel, with many of this party colleagues hugging him and shaking his hand.
He told them Northern Ireland's place within the UK is "secure" and congratulated them on maintaining their position as "Northern Ireland's largest party".
"Ulster is no longer at the crossroads - we're on the motorway and on a clear path to a better future," he said.
The DUP leader said the Fresh Start deal had removed "the threat of bankruptcy and collapse" from Stormont.
"The fundamental block on politics these last three years has been the refusal of some to face up to financial realities and accept welfare reform.
"That impasse soured relations; starved key public services of much needed resources, and threatened the executive with financial ruin.
"This deal ends that uncertainty and removes the obstacles to progress."
Outside the conference there was a small protest from same-sex marriage campaigners who criticised the DUP for blocking a recent assembly vote on the issue.
But inside there was nothing but hugs and cheers for the outgoing leader, with some members weeping openly as his last speech drew to its conclusion.
Mr Robinson is one of the founding members of the DUP and his political career has lasted more than 40 years.
He took over as first minister and DUP leader from the late Ian Paisley in 2008.
His formal retirement will not take effect until some time around the end of the year, but he said he intends to remain as a member of the DUP after he steps down.