DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant politicians united Monday to praise their former power-sharing leader, Ian Paisley, as his family held his funeral in conditions of exceptional privacy.
Paisley, 88, died Friday after a half-century of doggedly opposing compromise with the Irish Catholic minority and mounting, in 2007, a surprise U-turn into a unity government with former Irish Republican Army enemies.
Paisley's widow and children barred top politicians and churchmen from a strictly family-run funeral at their east Belfast home.
Analysts interpreted their move as a snub of former colleagues who forced Paisley to resign in 2008 as leader of the political party and evangelical church he had founded and overseen for decades, the Democratic Unionists and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
Paisley relatives later carried his casket from a hearse into a white tent concealing his grave at a Free Presbyterian cemetery in Ballygowan outside Belfast. A lone bagpiper could be seen and heard playing a lament.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the bedrock for the 7-year-old coalition now governing the British territory, each faction's leaders took turns praising Paisley, most strikingly the former IRA commander he befriended atop the government, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
"It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. ... From the word go, for some reason, we hit it off," McGuinness said.
First Minister Peter Robinson, who replaced Paisley as Democratic Unionist leader and became McGuinness' less friendly government partner, lauded his longtime boss as uniquely powerful and charismatic.
"In the storm he was oak and granite and in the sunshine he radiated passion and commitment," Robinson said.
The British flag flew at half-staff outside Belfast City Hall, where citizens queued to write messages of support in a condolence book for the Paisleys. Among those signing was Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party.