FORMER Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley has died aged 88.
Some of the biggest names in British and Irish politics have paid tribute to a man once known as Dr No who eventually embraced the peace process and power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
Dr Paisley was a firebrand fundamentalist Protestant preacher and polarising figure whose vehement opposition to dealing with the IRA and extreme anti-Catholic rhetoric was legendary.
The bellicose symbol of unionist defiance was famous for bellowing “never, never, never” during a mass protest against Irish government involvement in Northern Ireland affairs in the 1980s. He helped wreck earlier attempts at political accord, became the ultimate protest figure and promised to smash Sinn Fein.
But, in a potent symbol of the ground covered by political negotiations which largely ended violence, he entered government with republicans in 2007 as Stormont’s first minister after republicans lent their support to the police.
Eventually his partnership with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness at the head of government led to them being dubbed the Chuckle Brothers, and Mr McGuinness described him as a friend after his family announced his death today.
Dr Paisley’s wife Baroness Eileen Paisley said: “My beloved husband, Ian, entered his eternal rest this morning.
“Although ours is the grand hope of reunion, naturally as a family we are heartbroken.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said Dr Paisley was a controversial figure for large parts of his career.
“Yet the contribution he made in his later years to political stability in Northern Ireland was huge,” he added.
“In particular, his decision to take his party into government with Sinn Fein in 2007 required great courage and leadership, for which everyone in these islands should be grateful.”
Former prime ministers Tony Blair, Sir John Major and Gordon Brown plus current DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson also paid tribute.
Dr Paisley was elected to Westminster in 1970 as the Protestant Unionist MP for North Antrim whose Free Presbyterian theology infused his politics and permeated his oratory.
A year later he founded the DUP, which he led until 2008. In 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament where his views on the Catholic Church caused controversy - most notably when he denounced Pope John Paul II as the “anti-Christ” during a visit to the parliament in 1988.
He was denounced by his many political enemies - including the Ulster Unionist Party - as a stubborn trouble-maker, who would exploit any situation or development which he feared was leading to unification with the Republic of Ireland.
But Dr Paisley argued that he was merely defending the right of the majority of people in Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom.
Mr Paisley, whose constant watchword was once “no surrender”, opposed virtually every move introduced by the British Government in London to try to bring peace to Northern Ireland during decades of conflict.
Whether it was a peace process, a new form of devolved government or the machinations of the Ulster Unionists, Dr Paisley would be a voice of protest.
His speeches were condemned by his opponents as inflammatory, bigoted and rabble-rousing.
He played a key role in orchestrating the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike which brought Northern Ireland to a standstill in 1974. He was vehemently opposed to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and accused the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher of a betrayal of unionists after she signed the deal which gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland.
Even though he was also opposed to the 1998 Good Friday peace accord which eventually ended the Troubles, Dr Paisley ended up sharing power with Sinn Fein when he and his bitter rival Mr McGuinness became first and deputy first ministers in 2007 after republicans accepted the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
He once said of demands to talk to Sinn Fein: “I am not going to sit down with bloodthirsty monsters who have been killing and terrifying my people.”
But in 2007 he took his Stormont pledge of office with the words: “I believe that Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule.”
Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness were to strike up a remarkable bonhomie which led to Mr McGuinness describing him as a friend.
In 2008 he stepped down as leader of the DUP and as first minister.
He retired from the European Parliament in 2009, Parliament in 2010, and the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011.
Ian Paisley Jr ran successfully to fill his father’s parliamentary seat in 2010. The Government that year elevated the elder Dr Paisley to the House of Lords, alongside his wife Eileen.
The former leader’s Free Presbyterian Church, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Belfast, devoted a special service to his retirement as a full-time preacher in January 2012.
Dr Paisley was treated in hospital in the past, notably in 2012 for an unspecified heart problem.
Baroness Paisley has said his funeral will be private but a public memorial event will be held later this year.