The Rev Ian Paisley

Democratic Unionist first minister of Northern Ireland who agreed to share power with Sinn Féin after decades of conflict

The Rev Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside, who has died aged 88, came from humble beginnings to be self-appointed champion of Protestant and unionist Northern Ireland. For decades the object of widespread suspicion in Britain and Ireland, in 2007 he transformed his reputation and political legacy by reaching a power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin.

Paisley's decision to serve as first minister of the devolved assembly at Stormont – alongside those republicans he had once denounced as murderous – alarmed his most fervent adherents but was greeted by international acclaim. Because of his improbably jovial relationship with his deputy, the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, the two came to be known as the Chuckle Brothers. It was a long and extraordinary ideological journey from pulpit to prime ministerial office.

Paisley began as one of the most volatile elements in Northern Ireland's tempestuous political firmament. To fundamentalist supporters, he was a larger than life character ever vigilant against feared Catholic and republican incursions. To his detractors, he was a key figure in the continued destabilisation of the province over 25 years.

A huge, looming figure and a terrific performer in debate, he started making his mark beyond the Bible belt of Belfast in the mid-1960s. He stormed, soliloquised and bullied his way through district council, regional assembly, House of Commons and European Parliament, alternately subduing his opponents to silence and provoking them to yelling rage. In the pulpit of his Martyrs Memorial church, or on the back of a lorry haranguing a baying mob, he was equally powerful. Jokes, threats, biblical quotations and historical cliches poured from him, and those who heard reacted with either fear or fervour. Few were indifferent.

Born in Armagh, he was the son of a poor Baptist pastor, J Kyle Paisley, and his wife, Isabella. Most of his early years were spent in the staunchly Presbyterian town of Ballymena, County Antrim. In early adolescence, he felt called to the ministry. A combination of family background and instinct led him to an unorthodox training, at fringe evangelical colleges in south Wales and mid-America. He subsequently received an honorary doctorate from the Bob Jones University of South Carolina.

In 1946, the young Paisley was ordained by his father, and set up a mission hall in east Belfast, which became known in the neighbourhood for raucous hymn singing. Paisley's determination to be master of his own house was first given full expression in 1951, when he was invited to hold a meeting in a small Presbyterian church in County Down. Part of the congregation objected, and the rest split away to follow Paisley. They were the nucleus of the Free Presbyterian church that he then set up, with himself as founding moderator.

The first stirrings of tribal unrest in 1966 brought Paisley to national attention. He was a fierce critic of the conciliatory policies of Captain Terence O'Neill, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland to try to establish a closer relationship with the Republic. Ever alive to the possibilities of denouncing treason, Paisley first condemned O'Neill and then tackled the respectable Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the largest Protestant denomination in the north. He led a small but vociferous march to the general assembly of that church, making sure that it passed through a segment of Roman Catholic territory. It was a favourite ploy, designed to show that loyal citizens could go anywhere, and offend anyone. It was a liberty not, of course, to be extended to republicans, or even milder Irish nationalists.

The riots that inevitably followed resulted in Paisley being asked to sign a court order to keep the peace. He accepted the challenge with glee, refused to sign and chose instead to go to prison for three months. In England, press profiles warned that the Big Man from Ballymena was dangerous. In the province, an opinion poll produced the astonishing figure of 200,000 people agreeing with Paisley's stand – out of a population of one million adults, a third of whom were Catholics.

By 1968, there were greater opportunites for confrontation and publicity, afforded by the nascent civil rights movement. Paisley first organised a demonstration against a civil rights meeting in Armagh, and in January 1969, more seriously, against the idealistic march of students from Belfast to Derry. The vicious ambush by howling Protestants at Burntollet – Paisley was careful not to take part – was the more serious and significant incident, but it was the Armagh exhibition that earned Paisley another martyr's term in prison.

The following month he was released on bail to fight a Northern Ireland parliamentary election, in O'Neill's Bannside seat, as a candidate for the Protestant Unionist party. He lost by fewer than 1,500 votes, proving that 17th-century attitudes could pay dividends in 20th-century politics.

In October 1969 his elegant, vast new Martyrs Memorial church opened in east Belfast, the Free Presbyterian persuasion by that time having grown to 20,000 adherents. In April 1970 the moderator was elected to the Stormont parliament – for Bannside. In June, as Edward Heath's Conservatives won the UK general election, he entered the House of Commons in triumph as MP for North Antrim.

Preferring, as always, to be master of his own house, Paisley shunned the dominant Unionist party – in which he had made many enemies – and in 1971 formed his own political machine. Membership and leadership of the Democratic Unionist party closely paralleled those of the burgeoning Free Presbyterian church, which added around 10 congregations to its strength every year throughout the 1970s.

Paisley's politics were by no means consistent or predictable. He called for stronger law and order measures, but fiercely opposed the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. Virulently anti-Catholic, he nonetheless built a reputation as a tireless and impartial constituency MP, always finding time to sort out mundane problems for Catholic opponents as well as Protestant supporters.

Having built his political appeal on distrust of Westminster and the virtues of the loyalist ascendancy epitomised by Stormont, in March 1972 he opted for full political integration with Great Britain. Indeed, the onset of direct rule by Westminster in that month also marked, ostensibly, an even more startling change of heart, with hints of interest in, and even approval for, eventual Irish unity.

It was a brief interlude. At the end of 1972 Paisley refused to go to the multi-party constitutional talks in Darlington. In March 1973 he led his party into a united front with the Vanguard Movement, at that time a neo-fascist organisation that Paisley had frequently condemned, and the nakedly paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. Three months later he led noisy disruptions of the new Northern Ireland assembly, when 27 assorted loyalists persistently howled and brought proceedings of the 78-seat chamber to a standstill. When the historic power-sharing executive was painfully negotiated into being in November 1973, Paisley instantly promised to wreck it.

Hatred of the Sunningdale agreement was the cement that helped build a new loyalist coalition. At the end of 1973, Paisley's DUP joined the Vanguard party and a group of Unionists opposed the party's leader, Brian Faulkner, to form the United Ulster Unionist Council. In the general election of February 1974 it took 11 of the 12 Northern Ireland seats, shattering the power-sharing dream.

Faulkner's executive limped on for a couple of months, but it was a lost cause. When the final loyalist assault came in May 1974, in the form of an all-out strike, it brought Northern Ireland closer than ever to civil war.

After the collapse of the constitutional convention of 1975-76, Paisley assiduously worked on his image as the true defender of the Ulster – Protestant – people, refusing to let his party play second fiddle to the still powerful Unionists, or get entangled with any constitutional compromise.

He launched his first attempt to take undisputed control of loyalist Ulster in May 1977 with another strike. It was his first unequivocal failure. However, in June 1979 he astonished the Westminster and Belfast establishments by routing the opposition in the first European Parliament election.

Throughout his political career, Paisley fought the establishment, from both inside and out. He was a model parliamentarian, in the sense that he had an indefatigable appetite for constituency work and attending debates, many of them dreary and of only parochial interest. His speeches in the House of Commons were often tailored to the solemnity and self-regard of that place: carefully contained indignation within a soberly constructed argument. In Belfast, in the packed church or meeting hall, or on the streets, the style was more likely to be mob oratory. His anti-Catholicism was unbridled – he loved to abuse the Pope as "old redsocks" and inflame his listeners with rumours of seditious plots being hatched in Romish chapels.

Throughout the 1980s, Paisley kept up his barrage of accusations against Dublin, London and the Northern Ireland Office. His furious rants about the betrayal represented by the Anglo-Irish agreement alienated British public opinion and often appeared in danger of assuming the status of self-fulfilling prophecies.

His flirtation with paramilitary methods grew more pronounced. In February 1981, he had organised a late-night demonstration on a hillside in County Antrim at which 500 supporters paraded, waving firearm certificates. Following the signing of the agreement by Margaret Thatcher and the Irish taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, in November 1985, he helped establish Ulster Resistance, whose members sported red military berets. The organisation was linked to an intercepted consignment of arms destined to be shared out with the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters in 1988. But no attacks were ever claimed in its name.

Massed unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement initially provided a fresh platform for his thundering denunciations, but increasingly ill-attended protest vigils by DUP politicians outside Stormont symbolised the party's relative loss of influence.

He campaigned, unsuccessfully, against reform of the laws on homosexuality under the slogan "Save Ulster from sodomy" and opposed abortion advice clinics in Belfast. When at ease he could be disarmingly friendly, quick to recall names and faces, and charming to those who might have expected a demonising tirade rather than a joke. His Catholic constituents in North Antrim regularly testified to his lobbying power and loyal attention to local affairs.

Always a proud family man after his marriage in 1956 to Eileen Cassells, he encouraged his two sons and three daughters to follow in his religious and political footsteps. Rhonda, an artist, became a firebrand DUP councillor before moderating her views; Ian junior worked at DUP headquarters as a persuasive party spokesman and eventually held office in the Stormont government; Kyle took the cloth as a Free Presbyterian minister in East Anglia; Cherith at one stage edited her father's magazine, Protestant Blueprint; and Sharon married an east Belfast engineer.

During the inter-party talks in the early 1990s, Paisley adopted a semi-detached relationship to the slow-moving process. He was the only MP ordered out of the Commons for condemning the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, when it was revealed, in 1993, that secret government talks had been taking place with the IRA despite persistent previous denials.

Dr Ian Paisley shaking hands with Prime Minister Tony Blair in Jun 2005
The Rev Ian Paisley shaking hands with Tony Blair in Jun 2005. The prime minister encouraged the DUP leader to choose peace by forging a special bond based on their shared Christian commitment. Photograph: Richard Pohle/The Times/PA Photograph: Richard Pohle/PA

The paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 caught him politically off guard. Often dismissed on the hardline Shankill Road as more mouth than action, he was left fuming belligerently while the Protestant paramilitaries who used guns were grateful for an end to the violence.

Sidelined by the Belfast peace agreement of 1998, Paisley had to wait as unionist disenchantment with the process – heightened by doubts over republican compliance with the terms of the agreement – gradually turned the tide. The collapse of the Northern Ireland executive in 2002, a triumphant assembly election in 2003 which saw the DUP returned as the largest party in Northern Ireland and the recruitment of the UUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson tipped the balance decisively in Paisley's favour.

At Leeds Castle, Kent, during talks on the political future of Northern Ireland in September 2004, Paisley, recovering from a serious heart condition, confronted the ultimate challenge of his career. Would he once again wreck an opportunity for political compromise or could he transcend his past and cut a deal with Sinn Féin?

The DUP leader demanded that IRA volunteers wear "sackcloth and ashes" as a sign of repentance. Failure to reach agreement that December was ultimately due to Paisley's insistence on – and the republican movement's opposition to – photographers recording the destruction of IRA weapons. The two parties had, however, engaged in serious negotiation.

It took another two and a half years of personal reflection, internal party debate and continued persuasion by governments in London and Dublin before Paisley was ready to commit himself to the type of pact he had spent most of his life opposing. In the closing phase of the process, Paisley, characteristically, did not chart a predictable course. At a 12 July parade of the Independent Orange Order in 2006 he told followers: "[Sinn Féin] are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there."

In a sign of the prevailing mood of war-weariness, that outburst triggered a swift rebuke from loyalist paramilitary leaders. "If there is blood to be spilled," observed a former UDA official, "then let Dr Paisley spill his own blood, because it will not be our blood he is climbing over."

In October 2006, the DUP signed the St Andrews agreement, paving the way to a power-sharing executive involving Sinn Féin. To maximise support and because of lingering doubts inside the party, Paisley did not reveal during assembly elections in early 2007 whether he would definitely go into government with republicans.

Tony Blair's role in the charm offensive aimed at persuading Paisley to choose peace involved forging a special bond based on their common interest in and commitment to Christianity. Religious textbooks were swapped. "We shared books," the DUP leader later confirmed, "that I thought would be good for [the prime minister] to read and I'm sure he read them. He always takes books away with him."

When Paisley and the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, appeared side by side at Stormont on 26 March 2007 to announce that their parties had reached agreement, it marked a watershed in the province's progress towards political stability. But there was no handshake.

Once the deal was done, the new first minister of Northern Ireland adopted, with faultless delivery and without public rehearsal, a dignified rhetoric of political inclusion. "In politics as in life, it is a truism that no one can ever have 100% of what they desire," he declared when the devolved government was formally installed, on 8 May. "... I can say to you today that I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of the wonderful healing in this province today."

His earlier uncompromising approach had been vindicated, he asserted, because it ensured that the republican movement renounced violence, destroyed its weapons, supported the police and adopted the norms of parliamentary democracy. A meeting and handshake with Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach, at the site of the Battle of the Boyne in County Meath a few days later sealed a new era of cooperation with the Republic. In his speech that day he praised the Duke of Wellington for supporting Catholic emancipation in the 19th century and noted that a predominantly Catholic regiment, the 27th Foot, had saved the central line of the British army at Waterloo.

Paisley's brief period as first minister was, he correctly judged, sufficient to ensure that the cross-party administration gained widespread community acceptance. His jovial relationship with McGuinness was a cathartic expression of the broader process of defusing decades of sectarian suspicion. But there was never a symbolic handshake between the former enemies. What was important, Paisley explained, was "a proper practice between us".

For a politician to come into office in his early 80s was, on its own, an extraordinary achievement; the Spectator magazine dubbed him Marathon Man of the Year. Paisley insisted on staying in office for a full year in order to steer the province towards greater economic self-sufficiency. The successful conclusion in May 2008 of an international investment conference that he had helped convene would, he said, be the "appropriate time for me to bow out".

The retiring DUP leader had travelled a long way since 1988, when he was ejected from the European Parliament for shouting at the visiting Pope John Paul II: "I denounce you as the Antichrist." He was a member of that body from 1979 to 2004 and, but for a publicity-seeking resignation and re-election in 1985-86, sat at Westminster for four decades until 2010, when he was made Lord Bannside. The following year he left the Northern Ireland assembly.

The compact with Sinn Féin provoked few defections and prompted hardline supporters to query why he had not reached the same political compromise 40 years earlier – an act that might have sidestepped the mayhem and misery of the Troubles. The question that may never be satisfactorily answered is whether Paisley was the chief fomenter of Protestant alarm, or merely a larger-than-life reflection of it.

He may have condemned violence and taken extraordinary pains to avoid getting caught up in it, but he stirred, inflamed, ranted and terrified loyalists into believing that their heritage and their very lives were threatened. In the end, critics alleged, it was lust for power and a more imposing place in history that secured his conversion to the cause of political compromise. His belated commitment to cross-community cooperation, however, suggested that, like McGuinness, he had learned lessons during an extraordinary political odyssey.

He is survived by Eileen, who in 2006 was made Lady Paisley of St George's, and their children.

• Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, Baron Bannside, clergyman and politician, born 6 April 1926; died 12 September 2014

• Derek Brown died in 2011


Derek Brown and Owen Bowcott

The GuardianTramp

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