Ian Paisley, the co-founder and former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has died at the age of 88, reports the BBC. He served as First Minister of Northern Ireland from May 2007 to June 2008.
A fiercely passionate Unionist, Paisley was one of the most important figures in Irish and British domestic politics for half a century. Born in County Armagh in 1926, Paisley’s early career was as a Presbyterian minister, and he established his own denomination – the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster – in 1951. Its fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant doctrines were also key to his political beliefs.
In the 1950s and 60s he was heavily involved with Protestant Northern Irish paramilitary groups which opposed the IRA, and in 1971 he was one of the members of the Protestant Unionist Party who broke away to found the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP is now the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons with eight MPs – one of whom is Paisley’s son, Ian Paisley Jr.
Paisley was known for his fiery rhetoric, especially with regards to Catholicism – he memorably stood up and denounced Pope John Paul II as the “antichrist” when the pontiff came to speak before the European Parliament in 1988, when Paisley was an MEP for Northern Ireland. He also preached vociferously against homosexuality, founding the “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign in 1977.
After the Good Friday Agreement was approved by a majority of voters in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Irelend in 1998, Paisley’s DUP was the only major political party to oppose it. However, his stance softened slightly in later years, as the DUP reversed its long-time position and accepted the legitimacy of a Northern Irish Assembly which included representatives of Sinn Féin. When legislative powers were devolved to Northern Ireland in 2007, Paisley served for a year as First Minister alongside Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. (The roles have equal executive power.)
Poor health dogged him over the last decade, leading him to retire from his seat in Westminster at the last general election, and from his role as leader of his church at the end of 2011. He is survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons.