BELFAST (Reuters) - Hardline Protestant cleric and former Northern Ireland leader Ian Paisley has died at the age of 88, his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said on Friday.
After years of opposing reconciliation with Irish Republicans in the British-ruled province, Paisley's unlikely alliance with his bitter Catholic rivals helped belatedly to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
"Ian was one of the largest political figures in Northern Ireland, he made a massive contribution. He had a personality which we are hardly ever likely to see again," Peter Robinson, Paisley's successor as Northern Ireland's first minister, told the BBC.
"Even those who thought the least of his politics thought the most of him as a person."
As the leading light of hardline Unionism, which wants to maintain links to the United Kingdom, Paisley bitterly opposed any concession to the mainly Catholic nationalist community's desire for closer ties with the Irish Republic to the south.
He refused to join the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement that provided for a power-sharing government between the main Protestant and Catholic communities, objecting to sharing a table with Sinn Fein, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) guerrilla movement.
He consistently opposed the agreement as a sell-out of Northern Irish Protestants' British heritage, and his mantra of "No surrender" to the IRA appeared to make him ill-suited to run the province when he became first minister in 2007.
But once in office, he forged an unlikely friendship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a senior Sinn Fein figure and a former member of the IRA, with whom he gained the nickname "the Chuckle Brothers".
"I think we confounded the world by him, a pro-British, pro-Unionist politician, being able to work in a positive spirit with myself, an Irish Republican," McGuinness told the Irish national broadcaster RTE.
"A friendship grew out of that, and it's a friendship that lasted to this very day."
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)