LONDON - Former Northern Irish first minister Ian Paisley, the firebrand Protestant leader who struck a power-sharing deal with former foes Sinn Fein, died on Friday at the age of 88.
A towering figure during the Troubles in Northern Ireland who was known for his decades of intransigence and impassioned rhetoric, Paisley had been ill for some time.
"My beloved husband, Ian, entered his eternal rest this morning," his wife Eileen said on behalf of the family.
"Although ours is the grand hope of reunion, naturally as a family we are heartbroken," she said. "We loved him and he adored us, and our earthly lives are forever changed."
Paisley did what even he once considered unthinkable in May 2007 and entered office with Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the now-defunct Irish Republican Army paramilitary group -- restoring stable, devolved government to the British province.
In a feat few could match, the pro-British preacher co-founded both a church and a political party, leading the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the Protestant, conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Paisley's widow said his funeral would be private and attended only by his immediate family, as would be his burial, in accordance with his wishes.
A memorial service will be held later this year.
- 'Colossus in unionism' -
Politicians in the United States, Belfast, London and Dublin paid tribute to Paisley's impact during a lifetime in Northern Irish politics, which saw the reverend finally relent on a hitherto implacable intransigence.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the ex-IRA commander who entered government with Paisley as his deputy first minister -- a post he still holds -- voiced his sadness at the unionist titan's passing.
"I developed a close working relationship with him which developed into a friendship, which despite our many differences lasted beyond his term in office," he said.
Paisley's groundbreaking deal with Sinn Fein and bonhomie with McGuinness -- they were dubbed the "Chuckle Brothers" -- cut the ground from underneath him, costing him grassroots support. He stepped down in June 2008.
Former US president Bill Clinton, who played a key role in bringing the two factions together, praised "the once polarizing Paisley" for demonstrating "that reconciliation and cooperation is better than conflict and discord."
Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson, Paisley's successor as DUP leader, described him as a "colossus in unionism".
Paisley led "through difficult times where the unionist community in Northern Ireland was under attack from terrorism and felt that their constitutional position was imperilled, right through from those dark days to the relative peace and security that we have at the present time."
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Paisley had been a "controversial figure" for much of his career.
"Yet the contribution he made in his later years to political stability in Northern Ireland was huge," he said.
- 'Antichrist' heckling of pope -
Meanwhile Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Paisley's devotion to his faith and Northern Irish unionists was "deep and unshakeable".
"Dr Paisley was by any measure a major figure in the history of these islands," he said.
"And, while he was of course a divisive figure, his greatest legacy will be one of peace."
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who presided over the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, said: "Ian was a man of deep convictions. The convictions never changed. But his appreciation of the possibilities of peace, gradually and with much soul searching, did. He began as the militant. He ended as the peace-maker."
Paisley represented North Antrim in the British parliament's lower House of Commons from 1970 to 2010 and in the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 to 2011.
He sat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004, where he once denounced pope John Paul II as the "antichrist" during a 1988 visit from the pontiff.
In 2010 he entered the British parliament's upper House of Lords as Baron Bannside.
Paisley had three daughters and two sons. Ian Paisley Junior now sits in his old Commons seat.
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