DUBLIN (AP) — Ian Paisley often divided Northern Ireland in life. But a memorial to the Protestant evangelist who struck a twilight peace with Catholics united the British territory's fractious leaders in hymns and prayers Sunday.
More than 800 dignitaries from across Britain and Ireland, among them former prime ministers and paramilitary enemies, packed the Ulster Hall in Belfast to eulogize Paisley, who died last month at age 88. Paisley's widow and two sons led the service.
Paisley founded a party, the Democratic Unionists, and a church, the Free Presbyterians of Ulster, which spent decades opposing the Catholic and Irish nationalist minority in Northern Ireland. He stunned the world in 2007 by agreeing to form a unity government alongside former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, crafting a coalition that has survived seven years, but is currently in trouble.
McGuinness and Paisley's successor as Democratic Unionist leader, Peter Robinson, sat shoulder to shoulder at the hour-long service, surrounded by other Northern Ireland party leaders — former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and other leading figures from Ireland's opposition Fianna Fail party — and Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond.
The service featured a massive oil portrait of Paisley on stage and, at the end, a recording of him reading a passage from "Amazing Grace." A lone bagpiper took up the tune and the crowd stood to sing.
His wife, Eileen, described their 58-year marriage as "not a dictatorship, but a partnership" and her husband as "one of the happiest men on earth. He was happy in his pulpit, in his incredible zest for life, in the three parliaments in which he served."
Negotiations to bolster Northern Ireland's five-party government opened Thursday amid low hopes of progress and many disputes to resolve between Robinson's Democratic Unionists and McGuinness' Sinn Fein.