Hundreds of people have attended a memorial service for Northern Ireland’s former first minister Ian Paisley.
Relatives and friends stood alongside one-time enemies of the firebrand preacher turned politician during the invitation-only event in Belfast’s Ulster Hall.
Paisley, who was 88, died on September 12.
His wife Baroness Eileen Paisley told the audience how her husband, affectionately known as the “Big Man”, had loved life.
“He was one of the happiest men on earth,” she said. “He had an incredible zest for life and was happy in whatever he did whether in the pulpit or the three parliaments in which he served.”
The memorial was organised to provide an opportunity for a public farewell to one of the best-known characters in Northern Ireland politics following a private funeral last month.
For the duration of the service Mrs Paisley sat flanked by her twin sons Ian, who holds his father’s seat at Westminster and Kyle a minister in his father’s church.
She momentarily struggled to keep her composure as she recalled her husband’s final moments.
She added: “His home was his castle and he was at his happiest and most relaxed there. It is the place he would have chosen from which to enter his heavenly home and God granted his request.
“On the morning of September 12 when surrounded by Rhonda, Cherith, Kyle and me – Sharon and Ian were delayed on their ways to home but were able to say their farewells to him on the telephone – he slipped quietly and peacefully into the presence of the Good Shepherd.
“The peace and presence of the Saviour filled our hearts, permeated through the room leaving us with the feeling that we had walked with him right to the door of heaven and he had just stepped through.
“We knew that immediately when he breathed his last breath on earth his next breath was taken in heaven. Neither Ian nor I or any of our family could ask for anything more.”
Mrs Paisley said her marriage of 58 years had not been a dictatorship but a partnership filled with laughter and love.
The couple’s three daughters Rhonda, Sharon and Cherith sat in the main body of the hall surrounded by other family and friends.
Among the 830 invited guests were the North’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and the leaders of the main parties at Stormont, as well as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers and the Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was also in attendance as was Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.
Ian Paisley Jnr told the audience his father had been a plain-speaking, dedicated man of action who was inspirational, steadfast, consistent.
He said: “Dad was a politician with a servant’s heart.
“The milestones in his life are individually impressive, collectively they are historic.”
During his sermon, Kyle Paisley recalled how his father had cheated death during an assassination attempt in the 1980s.
Also among those taking part in the service was Rev Dr David McIlveen, a long-time friend and high profile member of the Free Presbyterian Church who described him as “a faithful preacher, a people’s politician and a distinguished leader” who had cast a shadow over three generations.
The Seven Towers Male Voice Choir from Ballymena, the heartland of his North Antrim constituency, provided the music for the special service which concluded with a minute’s silence.
Ian Paisley, the founder of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been described as a colossus in Ulster unionism. He was easily one of the most recognisable figures in British politics but, his vehement opposition to dealing with the IRA and extreme anti-Catholic rhetoric meant for decades the man dubbed Dr No whose best known phrase was “never, never, never” was also one of the most divisive elements.
In 2007 – almost 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the IRA’s terror campaign – he ended decades of virulent opposition to compromise with republicanism and took power as DUP first minister at the devolved assembly alongside Mr McGuinness, a former IRA commander and senior Sinn Féin member.
Their partnership at the head of government led to the pair being nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers.
Following his death Mr McGuinness said he had “lost a friend”.