Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Eileen Paisley shows she can pack as powerful a political punch as husband Ian

Eileen Paisley has spent the last 50 years in her husband's shadow. But this week she showed she's more than a match for him as a political heavyweight. Suzanne Breen reports

Supporting role: Eileen Paisley at her husband's side.
Ian and Eileen Paisley on their wedding day

For decades, she has been cast as the meek, mild wife walking in her husband's shadow. Eileen Paisley shattered that stereotype this week and proved she can pack as powerful a political punch as her spouse ever could.

Nigel Dodds was denounced as "a cheeky sod", the Robinson family was the source of "sleaze", and the former DUP leader's wife said she wanted to ram a document down one party adviser's throat.

Many TV viewers were shocked by the feistiness of Eileen Paisley. She has long been under-estimated. I've interviewed her several times. Once, after a female journalist had dismissed her as her "husband's handmaiden", she told me: "Just because I make my own jam doesn't mean I haven't something worthwhile to say. There's nothing wrong with standing by your man if he's the right man. I'm Ian's helper, his companion, his friend and his lover. I'm very proud of my husband.

"Maybe there were some things I'd have done differently, but we agree most of the time. He runs political matters by me and I tell him what I think. Ian never wanted an insipid, or submissive, wife who sits at home all day. He'd find that boring. He likes women with spirit."

Unlike the Robinsons, the Paisleys as a couple were never about style over substance. They remain genuinely in love. They light up in each other's company. The physical passion between them has survived five children and half-a-century of marriage.

Eileen Cassells had wanted to be a journalist, but her father thought shorthand typing a better option. She was 17 when she set eyes on Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher six years her senior. "He was passionate and vibrant," she told me.

Paisley's mind wasn't completely on the Lord that night. He later asked a friend about the pretty young woman in the pew. He found out where she worked. "I got a call to the office and this voice said, 'Hello Miss Cassells, will you come with me somewhere?' and I said, 'Sure, I'll go with you. Now who are you?' And he said he was Ian Paisley." He invited her to an Orange Hall to take down his speech. "He picked me up in his Austin Seven. It was tiny and he was so huge he hardly fitted in. My brother called it Ian's Noddy car."

On their first proper date – a trip to a church service in Bangor – Ian proposed. "I was shocked it came so quickly," Eileen recalled. "I loved my parents, they were very calm people, but Ian was so spontaneous. When we kissed, it was the way it's meant to be."

In a radical step for a 1950s' bride, Eileen didn't promise to obey in her wedding vows: "Ian says I twisted the minister's arm to leave that out!" She was interested in politics before they married: "I'd go to the hustings, get excited and cheer candidates I liked."

She won a seat on Belfast City Council three years before her husband became an elected representative, and she was later elected to the Stormont Assembly. When Paisley was jailed, Eileen addressed protest rallies across Northern Ireland "to get the venom out of me".

When Paisley was barred from the US, Eileen embarked on a speaking tour, addressing the Press Club in Washington, among others. Her husband went to Canada. Their love letters were couriered across the border, she said.

At the height of the Troubles, she tried not to worry about the assassination risk that Paisley faced: "If I was tense, the children would have been tense. So I left Ian in the Lord's hands and the Lord looked after him."

The couple had three daughters – Sharon, Rhonda and Cherith – before Eileen gave birth to Ian Jnr and Kyle. It annoyed her that people presumed her husband was desperate for a male heir.

"When I'd twin boys, a woman said, 'You're lucky. Mr Paisley wouldn't have tolerated twin girls'. She didn't know Ian at all. He'd have been as pleased with 10 girls as 10 boys."

Paisley has condemned the Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon", yet Eileen recalled visiting the Vatican during a family holiday. "The Sistine Chapel was lovely. During the trip, we were spotted by a Northern Ireland couple. I heard one say, 'Look, it's Ian Paisley!' The other said, 'No, it's not. What would he be doing in Italy?' Then Ian opened his mouth and everybody knew it was him."

In her views, Eileen Paisley is both traditional and progressive. She detests the "adultery and sodomy storylines" of TV soaps – "It would take a mountain of detergent to clean them" – but she has also championed female equality.

She challenged Free Presbyterian disapproval of her daughters for wearing trousers, make-up and jewellry: "No-one has the right to tell women what to wear. We don't tell men what aftershave to use or whether to grow a beard." When daughter Rhonda sued the DUP for sexual discrimination, she had her mother's "full support and love".

In all their married years, Paisley never forgot birthdays, or anniversaries, and delighted her with surprise presents: "He woke me one night and told me to look under the pillow. He'd left a beautiful watch there."

The Paisleys are a real love job. "We have fun," Eileen told me. "We share the same interests. That's very important for a husband and wife. In the days when Ian was out late, I'd sit up to 2am so we could talk. We have great chats. So many married couples don't. A spark like that between a woman and a man is a precious thing.

"Sometimes, when he had been away a long time, I'd tell him I missed him and he'd say, 'Eileen, we'll have all of heaven together.'"

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