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March 5, 2008 2:00 am
Ian Paisley, who is to stand down as first minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist party, has come to personify both the worst and latterly the best of the province's divided politics.
Mr Paisley - he was until last year moderator of his own church, the Free Presbyterians - was for many years a minority unionist voice. But he came in from the cold to lead what is now Northern Ireland's largest party into a historic power- sharing deal with Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing.
The photograph of Mr Paisley sitting somewhat awkwardly a table corner's distance from Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, has come to symbolise the distance that Northern Ireland and its embittered and entrenched politicians had travelled.
Mr Paisley had been for so long the quintessential nay-sayer of Northern Ireland politics. He had made a habit of boycotting or opposing the key peace initiatives. He walked out of the talks leading to the Good Friday agreement in 1998, in protest at Sinn Féin's participation. Indeed Mr Paisley had opposed every attempt at bringing peace to Northern Ireland, from the Sunningdale power sharing agreement of 1972 to the Anglo Irish agreement of 1985 and the Downing Street declaration of 1993, which paved the way for the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.
Senator George Mitchell, the US politician who chaired the Good Friday negotiations, said in his memoirs that with Mr Paisley present a deal would probably have been impossible to pull off.
But equally his history of intransigence made his eventual accommodation all the more remarkable. There were some among his former colleagues who felt betrayed, but perhaps only a unionist of Mr Paisley's hardline credentials could have brought the unionist community along.
Many observers believe his decision to go into government was prompted by the real threat that the two governments - London and Dublin - would do a deal over his head, which would see a further "greening" of the province's politics.
Without a deal, London had made it clear it would shelve all plans for devolution and cede Dublin greater powers in the running of Northern Ireland. Mr Paisley had long campaigned for a return to self-rule.
His support for devolution was one of the policies that set his DUP party apart from the Ulster Unionist party. But he opposed the sort of forced coalition that was created by the Good Friday agreement - with unionists and nationalists apportioned cabinet seats based on numbers in the assembly. His acquiescence is all the more remarkable, given his virulently anti-Catholic views and hardline political stance.
With Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness as his deputy first minister, the pair were dubbed the "chuckle brothers" for their public, if slightly forced, expressions of bonhomie.
Where Mr McGuinness acknowledges he was a leading figure in the IRA, Mr Paisley has always denied any involvement with loyalist paramilitaries. But several convicted loyalists blame Mr Paisley for their decisions to become involved.
Mr Paisley served three months in prison in 1966 for unlawful assembly and breach of the peace, after leading a loyalist march into the predominantly nationalist Markets district of Belfast, triggering serious rioting. Four years later, this son of a Baptist pastor was a member of the British parliament, memorably winning the by-election in the Bannside seat.
He formed his own party in 1971 - a more hardline, less secular alternative to the mainstream UUP.
He is likely to be succeeded as first minister and party leader by Peter Robinson, the finance minister and his long time protégé.
Mr Paisley is now 81. Pressure has been mounting for him to announce a date for his retirement - a decision that may well have been hastened after his son, Ian Paisley junior, was forced to resign last month as a minister amid allegations of impropriety in a property deal.
First Minister's long road to power-sharing
1946 Ordained minister of Free Presbyterian Church.
1964 Demands that an Irish Tricolour be taken down from Sinn Féin's Belfast office, leading to days of rioting
1969 Jailed for organising illegal counter-demonstration against a civil-rights march; released after an amnesty
1970 Elected MP for North Antrim
1971 Co-founder of Democratic Unionist Party
1972 Opposes suspension of the Stormont parliament for Northern Ireland 1974 Supporters of Paisley play an important role in orchestrating the Ulster Workers' Council Strike against the Sunningdale Agreement to share power between unionists and nationalists
1979 Elected member of the European Parliament
1981 US State Department revokes visa citing his "divisive rhetoric"
1985 Paisley and the other Unionist MPs resign from parliament at Westminster in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement providing for Irish Republic input into the governing of Northern Ireland 1998 Opposes 'Good Friday' Agreement, which was approved by more than 70 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland in a referendum
July 2006 Says 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"
October 2006 Agrees to elections to a new executive including Sinn Féin
2007 Elected first minister of Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness as his deputy
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