Ian Paisley has died at 88. The one-time Northern Ireland First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader and firebrand preacher passed away after a long illness. He had suffered a heart attack in 2013 and had also been battling cancer.
His wife Eileen confirmed the news saying, "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. We loved him and he adored us and our earthly lives are forever changed."
The son of a dissident Baptist minister, Paisley was born in Armagh in April 1926. He delivered his first sermon at the age of 16 and founded his own breakaway Free Presbyterian Church in 1951. A well-known critic of the Catholic Church, he once called the Pope “the Anti-Christ”.
In a historic move he became Northern Ireland’s First Minister in May 2007 after a deal was negotiated to share power with Sinn Fein. It was an extraordinary transformation for a man associated with Protestant militancy for decades.
His radical preaching was blamed for Protestant violence as far back as 1968.
He bitterly opposed any attempts at cross-border reconciliation and brought down Northern Irish Prime Minister Captain Terence O'Neill, who tried to create better relations with the south. He was the first of many Unionist leaders to experience the wrath of Paisley and suffered political oblivion as a result.
Though he never explicitly promoted violence, Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church became a hot bed of Unionist opposition.
His anti-Catholic rhetoric even included a vicious attack on the pope at the European Parliament.
Though he bitterly opposed the Good Friday Agreement, Paisley was eventually won over and, in perhaps a greater watershed moment in Northern Ireland history, he agreed to serve with Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness. Paisley was elected First Minister of Northern Ireland, at the age of 81, on May 8, 2007 with McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.
Their partnership ushered in a new era in Northern Irish politics, and he retired as First Minister of Northern Ireland in May 2008 to widespread accolades from all sides.
He became close to Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, so much so that they were known as the “Chuckle Brothers.”
The 88-year-old was the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party for almost 40 years. Last year he stood down from his role as a moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. He delivered his final sermon at the Martyrs Memorial Church in East Belfast.