For most of his half-century in Northern Ireland politics, Ian Paisley was synonymous with two words: “No” and “Never.”

The Protestant minister who became the province’s most divisive politician used the slogan “Ulster Says No!” to oppose Anglo-Irish negotiations over the future of Northern Ireland. His most famous response to that peace initiative — “Never! Never! Never! Never!” — expressed the starkest possible rejection of any compromise with Catholics and the Irish government.

Paisley died Friday at age 88, his wife said in a statement.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, often backed by menacing Protestant mobs, Paisley used street protests to thwart compromise with the province’s Catholic minority and to topple moderate Protestant leaders from the rival Ulster Unionist Party. Some 3,700 people died in those four decades of strife called “the troubles.”

But Paisley’s final years demonstrated that, in politics, “never” doesn’t last forever.

In 2007 Paisley stunned the world by agreeing to lead a coalition government in Northern Ireland alongside senior Irish Republican Army veterans, long his arch-enemies. Paisley struck such a strong rapport with his co-leader, the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, that the press pack dubbed them the “Chuckle Brothers.”

“I developed a close working relationship with him which developed into a friendship, which despite our many differences lasted beyond his term in office,” said McGuinness, who still leads the coalition today alongside Paisley’s successor as Democratic Unionist leader, Peter Robinson.

Paisley’s acceptance of an IRA “terrorist and man of blood,” as he once called McGuinness, provided a most unexpected coda to the life of Northern Ireland’s most vocal and enduring politician. After all, this was a man who, internationally, may have been best known for heckling Pope John Paul II as “the antichrist” in 1988.

For decades Paisley led his own party and church, displayed bombastic charm on the campaign trail, easily won re-election as a British and a European lawmaker, and flayed his many enemies with verbal venom.

Friend and foe alike called him “the big man” in recognition of his bulky, 6-foot-3 (190-centimeter) frame, his exceptionally large-featured face and his superhuman lungs which, until recent years, allowed him to outshout any opponent.

Catholics often said Paisley was the figure they most loved to hate. The outlawed IRA pointedly never made an attempt to kill him, seeing his over-the-top Protestant vehemence as a vital recruiting tool.

Historians credit Paisley with mobilizing, like no other defender of Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, the anxieties of Protestants fearful of being subsumed into the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland.

His support swelled when the IRA began bombing Northern Ireland towns and killing police officers in 1970, the year he first won election to British Parliament. In 1979, Paisley also became a European lawmaker and won four re-elections, each time as the province’s most popular politician.

In 1974, after Ulster Unionist leaders cut a peace deal with moderate Catholics and the Irish government, Paisley worked with Ulster Unionist hard-liners and Protestant paramilitary groups to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill. Roads were blocked, electricity was cut off and the fledgling Protestant-Catholic administration collapsed.

But a generation later, the silver-haired Paisley’s ability to mobilize street protests faded. His refusal to keep his Democratic Unionist Party involved in the negotiations that produced the 1998 Good Friday peace pact was later regarded as a tactical blunder.

The man who led the Good Friday talks, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, said the Democratic Unionist walkout actually helped.

“Reaching agreement without their presence was extremely difficult; it would have been impossible with them in the room,” Mitchell wrote about the 22-month negotiations.

Born on April 6, 1926, as the son of a Baptist pastor, Paisley first gained public attention in 1956 when his fledgling Free Presbyterian Church tried to convert a teenage Catholic girl, an operation condemned by others as child abduction.

It wasn’t just Catholics who felt the wrath of his social and doctrinal conservatism.

Paisley quit the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s long-dominant Protestant fraternity, in 1962 after denouncing its tolerance of ecumenical contact with Catholics. He courted fury from mainstream Protestants by leading abusive pickets outside meetings of the Presbyterians and the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland.

In 1977, Paisley led a campaign called Save Ulster From Sodomy that sought to keep homosexual acts, legal in the rest of the United Kingdom, outlawed in Northern Ireland. A European Court of Human Rights ruling forced Britain to decriminalize homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982.

Paisley proved adept at attention-grabbing stunts. In 1963, he led protests when Belfast City Hall lowered the British flag for the death of Pope John XXIII. In 1964, his threat to lead a Protestant mob against the display of an Irish flag at a Sinn Fein office triggered the worst riots Belfast had suffered since the 1930s.

In 1965, when the Ulster Unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, was hosting Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass, Paisley threw snowballs at them.

Many Paisley-led protests were far more menacing affairs. O’Neill once compared Paisley’s tactics to those of Adolf Hitler.

“The contempt for established authority; the crude and unthinking intolerance; the emphasis upon monster processions and rallies; the appeal to a perverted form of patriotism — each and every one of these things has its parallel in the rise of the Nazis to power,” O’Neill said.

Paisley in turn ridiculed O’Neill’s ambitions of building diplomatic bridges with the north’s Catholic minority and the neighboring Irish Republic.

“A traitor and a bridge are very much alike,” he remarked. “They both go over to the other side.”

His refusal to pay a fine in 1966 brought a three-month incarceration that boosted his status among Protestant militants, who chanted “We want Paisley!” outside the prison and looted nearby Catholic-owned pubs. That year, Protestant paramilitary outlaws began attacking Catholic civilians, killing three people. The first man convicted for those murders said Paisley inspired him.

Paisley frequently traveled as an evangelist to Africa and North America. He was also a trustee of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, whose founder awarded Paisley an honorary doctorate of divinity after his 1966 imprisonment.

In the late 1960s, when Catholics began marching in demand for equal rights in housing, employment and electoral representation, Paisley mobilized mobs against them, and served a six-week prison term for unlawful assembly. O’Neill resigned amid growing Protestant hostility to compromise.

Paisley did agree to negotiate with the Irish government twice in the 1990s, but justified such encounters as a battle between good and evil.

After the Good Friday agreement in 1998, the British and Irish governments — who had had long dismissed Paisley as a destructive bigot — froze him out of negotiations for years. But after his party became the largest in Northern Ireland in 2004, they came to rely on his ability to deliver Protestant backing for compromise with the Catholic minority.

The IRA formally renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, clearing the way for its allied Sinn Fein party to recognize the legal authority of Northern Ireland and its police.

Still, few observers expected Paisley to agree to a unity government so quickly after the IRA-Sinn Fein peace moves — or to get along so handsomely with McGuinness.

Paisley stepped down as leader of the government and the Democratic Unionists in 2008, but his party’s unity government with Sinn Fein has continued to govern Northern Ireland with surprising stability.

He retired from the British House of Commons in March 2010, using his final speech to laud a peace process that he long opposed. He was given the title of Lord Bannside and became a member of the upper house of British Parliament, the House of Lords. He left the Northern Ireland Assembly in March 2011.

He did not mellow completely. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in September 2010, Paisley condemned the trip as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

On Dec. 18, 2011, Paisley preached his final sermon as moderator of his flagship Free Presbyterian church, the Martyrs Memorial in Belfast, reflecting on the inevitability of death.

“Thank God I’m nearer home today than I’ve ever been,” he told the standing room-only crowd of 3,000. “Home sweet home where Jesus is, where the great apostles are, where the mighty angels are, where all our blood-washed friends are.”

“We leap not into darkness, we Christians, and the shadow of death,” Paisley said. “We leap, rather, into the light and the burning sunshine of the light that will never go out.”

He is survived by his widow, Eileen, three daughters, two sons and several grandchildren.

Eileen Paisley said his funeral and burial will be private family events but a public memorial service would be held later. She expressed hopes of meeting him again in heaven.

“Although ours is the grand hope of reunion,” she said, “naturally, as a family, we are heartbroken.”


Associated Press reporters Jill Lawless and Robert Barr in London contributed to this report.