Rev. Ian Paisley, the divisive Protestant firebrand who devoted his life to thwarting compromise with Catholics in Northern Ireland only to become a pivotal peacemaker in his twilight years, died Friday in Belfast, his wife said. He was 88.

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

Yet at the zenith of his peace-wrecking powers, Paisley in 2007 stunned the world by delivering the province's first stable unity government between its British Protestants and its Irish Catholics. "Dr. No," as he was widely known, finally said yes — and his powerful U-turn cemented a peace process that he had done so much to frustrate.

From the conflict in Northern Ireland's earliest days, Paisley prophesied damnation for any Protestant politician or church leader who dared to build bridges with the Catholic Church and Irish nationalists. Mainstream Protestant leaders in turn sought to dismiss Paisley as a bigoted crank.

Hostile to the establishment, Paisley built his own extremist power base. His evangelical sect, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, labelled the pope as the Antichrist and called the major Protestant denominations ecumenical Judases. His Democratic Unionist Party insisted that Northern Ireland's union with Britain could not tolerate concessions to Irish nationalist demands.

Often backed by the brooding menace of Protestant mobs and masked men, Paisley led club-wielding blockades of 1960s Catholic civil rights marches, demanded the military destruction of a resurgent Irish Republican Army, and denounced the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998 as a surrender to "the men of blood" in the IRA's Sinn Fein party.

REVEREND IAN PAISLEY PROTESTS OUTSIDE THE STORMONT PEACE TALKS

Rev. Ian Paisley, then-leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, protests against the re-admittance of Sinn Fein to peace talks in 2008. (Reuters)

Protestants rallied behind him with such fervour that no political initiative could last without his support. Over and over, he claimed the political scalps of compromise-minded Protestant leaders from the rival Ulster Unionist Party.

In 1973, Ulster Unionist leaders cut a peace deal with moderate Catholics and the Irish government that foreshadowed the ultimate success of the Good Friday peace accord a quarter-century later. But 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 in May 1974.

Paisley perennially reaffirmed his status as Northern Ireland's most popular politician, topping more than a dozen votes in elections to the British and European parliaments, where he held seats simultaneously in London and Brussels for a quarter-century.

Friend and foe alike called him "the big man" in recognition of his broad-shouldered, 1.9-metre-tall frame, oversized facial features and superhuman lungs that, even late in life, allowed him to outshout opponents.

To many Catholics, he was the figure they most loved to hate. This reflected, partly, their recognition of his unflagging energy. They also understood that Paisley's most notorious outbursts — his violent language, his 1988 heckling of Pope John Paul II — encouraged outsiders to sympathize with the Catholic side of the conflict.

Indeed, Protestant rivals frequently described Paisley as the IRA's best recruiting sergeant. The IRA seemed to agree. The underground organization killed or maimed dozens of Protestant politicians, but never made an attempt to assassinate him.

Paisley always enjoyed a stronger personal following than his Democratic Unionists could muster as a party. Throughout the years of bloodshed, Paisley's party served as a thorn in the side to the Ulster Unionists, the party that forged Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state in the 1920s as the Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain.

Voluntary exile

An IRA ceasefire in 1997 opened the door for the Catholic-based Sinn Fein party to enter talks on Northern Ireland's future in negotiations overseen by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. While the Ulster Unionists stayed at the table, Paisley's DUP bolted for the exit.

Mitchell considered Paisley's voluntarily exile an essential ingredient for reaching the Good Friday peace accord of April 10, 1998. Had the Democratic Unionists "stayed and fought from within, there would have been no agreement," Mitchell wrote in his memoir.

But even as the British, Irish and U.S. governments sought to marginalize Paisley, excluding him from subsequent talks, his appeal surged amid the chronic political crises that followed the accord.

FRANCE PROTEST

Rev. Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland denounces the pope's speech to the European Parliament in 1988. (Jean-Claude Delmas/Reuters)

The pact called for Sinn Fein to receive seats in a coalition government, and for the IRA to disarm fully by mid-2000 but didn't explicitly link those mutually reinforcing goals.

When the IRA insisted it wouldn't surrender even a single bullet and raised doubts about its ceasefire commitments, Paisley crowed he'd been vindicated and the Ulster Unionist-led government suffered irreparable damage.

Months later, in 2003, Paisley's party won most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Protestants had given Paisley an absolute veto over any resumption of co-operation with Sinn Fein, an apparent doomsday scenario for power-sharing.

Paisley declared there wasn't "a snowball's chance in Hell" he'd work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA surrendered all weapons and disbanded publicly. Upping the ante, he called on Sinn Fein leaders to don "sackcloth and ashes," an Old Testament ritual for demonstrating repentance and shame.

Paisley seemed determined to humiliate his enemies — yet this time his unbending reputation suited the cause of lasting peace.

The IRA in 2005 disarmed and renounced violence, transforming its truce from open-ended to permanent. Sinn Fein in January 2007 voted to support the police, accepting the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state for the first time.

Even then, Paisley demanded more. He called on Sinn Fein leaders to confess to police all the unsolved IRA crimes they and their colleagues had committed.

Burying the hatchet

When the Democratic Unionists increased their Assembly strength in March 2007 elections, Paisley insisted he wouldn't start talking face-to-face with Sinn Fein, never mind form a cabinet with them.

'We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future.' - Rev. Ian Paisley, along side Gerry Adams in 2007

Yet within a few weeks, Paisley appeared alongside Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams live on TV to declare that their two parties had buried the hatchet.

"We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future," Paisley said in that address, the first time he ever shared a platform with Sinn Fein.

In the coming year, Paisley forced commentators to reassess his legacy. Had he mellowed, or had he simply demanded the impossible and held his ground until his enemies delivered it?

To the surprise of many, Paisley embraced his new role as Northern Ireland's first minister with a relaxed demeanour, most strikingly when working alongside his government co-leader, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. The two men said they formed a genuine, mutually respectful relationship. Joking together at events, they were dubbed "The Chuckle Brothers" by a disbelieving local press.

Yet at Paisley's insistence, they never shook hands. McGuinness said he understood and didn't push the issue.

Paisley stepped down as leader of the government and the Democratic Unionists in 2008. The coalition between his party and Sinn Fein continued to govern Northern Ireland with harmony, but far less humour.

He retired from the House of Commons in 2010 and from Northern Ireland's Assembly in 2011. The British government elevated him to the upper House of Lords, giving him the title Lord Bannside, a reference to the river that divides Northern Ireland.