With his booming preacher's voice and broad, florid face, Paisley, 77, the long-time voice of opposition to any compromise with Irish Catholic nationalists, is one of the province's most recognizable politicians.

As leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the political vehicle he founded in 1970 to help ensure that Northern Ireland remained firmly British, Paisley has consistently railed with equal venom at his Catholic opponents and more moderate voices of the Protestant majority.

His strident posturing won him the votes this time, with his DUP claiming 30 of the 108 seats in the assembly, compared to 27 for the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party.

Strong support

When critics charge that Paisley's opposition to any negotiations with paramilitary group the Irish Republican Army makes him out of touch, he points to strong electoral backing that has made him a member of both the British and European parliaments as well as the assembly.

An evangelical Christian, Paisley is often accused of bigotry for saying that while he has no problem with individual Catholics, he opposes their church itself.

And while pundits ponder whether the peace process might advance more quickly were Paisley to step down, he is already talking about standing as a member of the European Parliament again in 2004.

"I will go to the grave with the convictions I have," he once quipped.