Preacher and politician

Preacher and politician

Born: April 6, 1926; Died: September 12, 2014

Ian Paisley, who has died aged 88, was one of the towering figures of Northern Irish politics for almost half a century, and also one of the most controversial. For much of his political career he was a deeply divisive figure, revered and despised in equal measure, but in 2007 he surprised friend and foe alike by agreeing to share power with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

It was a remarkable culmination to an eventful career. As his biographer Ed Moloney observed in 2008, Mr Paisley had been "there at the beginning of the Troubles - many would say he lit the first fuse - and his accession as First Minister of Northern Ireland marked the ending of the Troubles". In between, Mr Paisley left an indelible mark on the Province with his unyielding Unionist principles, and equally uncompromising rhetoric.

Ian Richard Kyle Paisley was born on April 6, 1926 in Armagh, a year after the partition boundary between Northern and Southern Ireland (then the Irish Free State) was confirmed by governments in London, Dublin and Belfast. His father was the Rev. James Kyle Paisley, a local Baptist pastor who also served with Edward Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-13. His mother was Isabella Turnbull, a strict Presbyterian who hailed from Kilsyth, near Stirling.

Their son was raised in Ballymena, attending the town's Model and Technical High Schools. Mr Paisley became a "born-again" Christian at the age of six; at 16 he preached his first sermon to a congregation of eight people, and honed his oratory at the Barry School of Evangelism in South Wales. The experience of preaching to often-hostile crowds, including dockers and navvies, gave Mr Paisley's speechmaking its characteristically aggressive edge. Back in Belfast, he completed his studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological College.

Ordained in 1946, political involvement - via the National Union of Protestants (NUP) - was not far behind, and within a couple of years Mr Paisley was in demand as one of the NUP's most colourful speakers. Meetings were dominated by zealous anti-Catholicism, occasionally accompanied by Cold War-era anti-Communism (the two were often conflated). Mr Paisley, meanwhile, experienced hands-on political campaigning for the first time at the Stormont election of 1949. He was a natural.

Two years later a split in Crossgar's Presbyterian community also gave Mr Paisley the pretext to launch his own denomination, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, of which he was moderator for the next six decades. As a religious leader, Mr Paisley had a flair for self-promotion, opposing not only Catholicism in general, but ecumenicalism and what he saw as the "Romeward" drift of other Protestant churches. He cemented his reputation in the early 1960s after protesting in Rome against the Second Vatican Council, and in Belfast when City Hall lowered its flag on the death of Pope John XXIII.

The 1960s was the decade in which Mr Paisley became a household name across the UK, adroitly exploiting the media as he railed against closer relations with the Irish Republic, against Terence O'Neill's moderate policies, against the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1968, and against the Peoples Democracy movement of 1969. Although certainly provocative, Mr Paisley articulated genuine concerns among working-class Protestants that their status within the UK was under threat.

Mr Paisley founded the Protestant Unionist Party in 1966, which grew into the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) six years later. He stood for Stormont in 1969 but lost to Mr O'Neill (whose premiership he helped destroy) in the Bannside constituency, although he gained it on his second attempt in 1970. Mr Paisley was also returned for the Westminster constituency of North Antrim the same year, adding the short-lived Northern Ireland Assembly to his electoral berths in 1973 (from which he opposed the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement); the European Parliament in 1979, and Belfast City Council from 1967-73.

In spite of his public anti-Catholicism, Mr Paisley always claimed to dislike the faith rather than individual Catholics, something reflected in his diligent handling of constituency casework, regardless of religion. Another important aspect of Mr Paisley's appeal was that he was not a traditional Northern Irish Protestant leader: in his own way - although it did not look that way to his Catholic opponents - he was a radical anti-establishment figure. In Brussels, for example, he forged an amicable working relationship with the moderate Nationalist leader John Home.

Mr Paisley's (occasional) pragmatism also surfaced in the 1980s when he helped sustain Jim Prior's Northern Ireland Assembly, at least for a time, although by 1985 he was vehement in his condemnation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, rejecting any Irish Republican "say" in the Province's affairs with the rallying cry: "We say never, never, never, never!"

In October 1988, meanwhile, Mr Paisley was apparently attacked and removed from the European Parliament after wielding a sign that read "Pope John Paul II Antichrist" as the Pontiff addressed MPs.

Even so, support for both Mr Paisley's church (promoting what he called "Bible Protestantism") and party continued to rise; at the 1989 and 1994 European Parliament elections Mr Paisley secured the most votes of any politician in UK electoral history. Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 earned his predictable condemnation, the DUP won 18 per cent in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that followed.

Over the next few years the DUP gradually usurped the Ulster Unionists as the majority party of Protestantism, and by October 2006 - when politicians gathered in St Andrews to break one of many impasses - it was Mr Paisley who agreed to fresh Assembly elections and the prospect of Sinn Fein ministers in its executive. The DUP and Sinn Fein increased their support so that, when the Assembly met in May 2007, Mr Paisley became First Minister (aged 81) and Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness his deputy.

Dubbed the "Chuckle Brothers" by the Northern Irish media, the pair got on surprisingly well, while further afield Mr Paisley struck up a warm rapport with another Nationalist, the Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond. Yielding to internal political pressure, however, Mr Paisley was in post for less than a year, retiring as DUP leader and First Minister in May 2008.

Having "walked in death's shadow" a few years previously, Mr Paisley gradually withdrew from public life (although he joined the House of Lords in 2010) and delivered his final sermon to a packed Martyrs' Memorial Hall. Alluding to his own mortality, Mr Paisley said: "Our day of fighting is about to close. Our day of everlasting rejoicing is about to begin."

Ian Paisley is survived by his wife of 55 years, Eileen (also a peer in her own right), and five children including Ian Paisley Junior, who succeeded his father as the MP for North Antrim in 2010.