Dr Ian Paisley, the hard-line Northern Ireland evangelist who led Protestants into power-sharing with Catholics, enters the DUP office in Ballymena, Northern Ireland March 8, 2010 as he prepares to announce he will retire from the British Parliament after a 40-year career.
Ian Paisley dead at 88
02:51 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: David Cameron: Ian Paisley later on made a huge contribution to political stability

First minister: Ian Paisley was one of the largest political figures in Northern Ireland

Irish PM: While he was a divisive figure, his greatest legacy will be one of peace

Paisley was a key figure in ending three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland CNN  — 

Northern Ireland’s former first minister and former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley has died, his wife, Eileen, said in a statement Friday. He was 88.

Paisley, a Protestant preacher, was a key figure in ending three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, making peace in the end after leading Protestants against compromise with Roman Catholics for years.

“My beloved husband, Ian, entered his eternal rest this morning,” his wife’s statement said.

“Although ours is the grand hope of reunion, naturally as a family we are heartbroken. We loved him and he adored us, and our earthly lives are forever changed.”

Paisley made his name as a hard-line pro-British politician during the Northern Ireland conflict and was leader of the Democratic Unionist Party for almost 40 years.

During decades of seemingly irreversible conflict between Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, Paisley was considered an uncompromising figure. The unrest in the province killed at least 3,600 people and injured 36,000 over the years.

To the surprise of many, Paisley agreed to share power with his former sworn enemy, Sinn Fein. Paisley was elected Northern Ireland’s first minister in 2007, with former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.

Political opponents, but friends

McGuinness said Friday that he had learned of Paisley’s death “with deep regret and sadness” despite their long political rivalry.

“Over a number of decades we were political opponents and held very different views on many, many issues, but the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.

“I want to pay tribute to and comment on the work he did in the latter days of his political life in building agreement and leading unionism into a new accommodation with republicans and nationalists.”

In the brief time they worked together as first and deputy first minister, a close working relationship developed that turned in a friendship, McGuinness said, “which despite our many differences lasted beyond his term in office.”

UK Prime Minister David Cameron described Paisley as “one of the most forceful and instantly recognizable characters in British politics for nearly half a century,” adding that he would be greatly missed.

“Of course, Ian 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 said.

“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.”

Irish PM: Divisive figure with legacy of peace

Northern Ireland’s current First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson also paid tribute to his larger-than-life predecessor.

“Ian Paisley was one of the largest political figures in Northern Ireland and made a massive contribution, particularly to the process in which we are presently engaged,” he said.

“He had a personality we are hardly ever likely to see again.”

The Irish Republic’s Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Enda Kenny said Paisley “was by any measure a major figure in the history of these islands,” as he sent his condolences to his family.

“I know that he treasured the peace and friendship that he had lived to see, and helped to build, between our traditions,” Kenny said.

“His devotion to his faith and to the Unionist people of Northern Ireland was deep and unshakeable. In time, history will come to a fuller judgment of his long career.

“And, while he was of course a divisive figure, his greatest legacy will be one of peace.”

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Journalist Peter Taggart reported from Belfast, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London.