The President and the Taoiseach have extended their condolences after the death of the Progressive Unionist Party leader, David Ervine, this evening.

President Mary McAleese said that Mr Ervine's contribution to Northern Ireland politics during very difficult and challenging times will always be remembered.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that Mr Ervine 'was a courageous politician who sought to channel the energies of loyalism in a positive political direction'.

Mr Ahern said that Mr Ervine had made a difficult journey to democratic politics, and became an invaluable and vocal supporter of the Good Friday Agreement.

He also said that Mr Ervine was also a passionate defender of the most disadvantaged in society.

The US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, said that Mr Ervine had made an admirable transformation into an unflinching advocate for peace.

Political leaders in Northern Ireland have also expressed their condolences.

The Northern Secretary, Peter Hain, expressed deep shock and sadness, and said that Mr Ervine was a 'talented, courageous and honest politician'.

Mr Hain said that Mr Ervine had 'grown away from the past and worked tirelessly to make Northern Ireland a better place'.

'Tireless and dedicated servant'

The Ulster Unionist leader, Reg Empey, said that 'Northern Ireland has today lost a unique, charismatic and uncharacteristically spin-free politician'.

'He realised that violence belonged in the past and was keen to play his part in helping loyalists make the transition towards exclusively peaceful and democratic means,' Mr Empey said.

The Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, said that Mr Ervine had played a key role within loyalism throughout the development of the peace process.

'He made a valuable and important contribution to moving our society away from conflict,' Mr Adams said.

The SDLP MP, Dr Alastair McDonnell, praised Mr Ervine's role in the peace process and said he hoped that 'loyalism will continue to follow his vision of political progress and reject paths of violence'.

Belfast Lord Mayor Cllr Pat McCarthy, who sat on the city council with Mr Ervine, expressed his sadness at Mr Ervine's death.

He said that Mr Ervine was 'a tireless and dedicated servant of the people of Belfast' and that he was a man of integrity who would be sorely missed.