Ian Paisley, the hard-line Protestant cleric who led the Democrat Unionist Partyin its opposition to the IRA and independence for Northern Ireland, has died. He was 88.

Rich Preston, reporting for NPR from London, says Paisley had been ill for some time.

Although Paisley staunchly opposed a 1998 power-sharing deal that brought Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, into government, Paisley accepted the post of first minister of Northern Ireland in 2007 at the age of 81.

The Associated Press described Paisley as "Northern Ireland's most polarizing politician throughout its three decades of civil strife, during which the evangelist's blistering oratory was often blamed for fueling the bloodshed that claimed 3,700 lives."

But Reuters says that "after years of opposing reconciliation with Irish Republicans in the British-ruled province, Paisley's unlikely alliance with his bitter Catholic rivals helped belatedly to bring peace to Northern Ireland."

"Ian was one of the largest political figures in Northern Ireland, he made a massive contribution," Peter Robinson, Paisley's successor as Northern Ireland's first minister, told the BBC.

"He had a personality which we are hardly ever likely to see again," Robinson added. "Even those who thought the least of his politics thought the most of him as a person."

Paisley refused to join negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday deal that largely ended the protracted conflict. But, Reuters says, "once in office, [Paisley] forged an unlikely friendship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a senior Sinn Fein figure and a former member of the IRA."

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