Belfast Telegraph

Ian Paisley's wife Eileen: Protective passion of the woman of steel who always had Doc's back

By Suzanne Breen

In his prime, he was like a gladiator felling his enemies in our political amphitheatre. But in his latter years, the Rev Ian Paisley needed assistance against his opponents – and his wife Eileen was always on hand to do battle on his behalf.

For decades, she had been cast as the meek woman in the Big Man's shadow. But furious at how her husband had been "assassinated with words and deeds" and forced out of the DUP by former colleagues, Eileen went to war.

In a TV documentary earlier this year, she denounced Nigel Dodds as "a cheeky sod", rounded on the Robinson family as the source of "sleaze", and revealed how she once wanted to ram a document down one party adviser's throat.

Brimming with protective passion for her husband, Eileen proved that she was no pushover.

She packs as powerful a political punch as her husband ever did.

In their early years of marriage, she rounded on policemen who arrested him and judges who jailed him with the same venom that she later attacked his erstwhile DUP associates.

Feeling himself wronged by those he once trusted, chased from political office and his beloved church long before he felt ready to go, Paisley's life post-politics could have been a sad and lonely place had Eileen not been by his side.

In his brief time as First Minister, he never made a move without her approval. It drove the DUP's men in grey suits crazy.

It was Eileen who encouraged him to hold no animosity towards Martin McGuinness and to just get on with the job. While the party's upper echelons choked every time the Chuckle Brothers appeared in public, his wife told him to pay no heed.

Eileen raged against the "upstarts" who, as she saw it, had made their names on her husband's reputation and then queued up to stab him in the back.

Without her approval, the TV documentary in which the Paisleys blasted the DUP leadership would never have been filmed. Her husband called her 'the boss' and 'honeybunch' alternatively, and described her as the only person who could order him about.

From the day they met, she was never just his arm candy. Eileen was a smart, outspoken woman, interested in politics in her own right, whose opinions always carried weight with her spouse.

She was at his side during the 2006 St Andrews negotiations and was instrumental in persuading him to agree to power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

A woman journalist once dismissed Eileen as her "husband's handmaiden". It was a total misread. In a radical step for a 1950s bride, Eileen hadn't promised to obey in her wedding vows. They were always equals.

"Just because I make my own jam doesn't mean I haven't something worthwhile to say," she told me. "There is 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. There are things I'd have done differently over the years, 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, submissive wife who sits at home. He'd find that boring. He likes women with spirit."

Eileen Cassells was 17 years old when she set eyes on Paisley after she went to hear him preach.

His mind was not completely on the Lord when he saw the pretty typist – he found out who she was and where she worked. Eileen once recalled: "I got a call to the office and this voice said, 'Hello Miss Cassells, will you come with me somewhere?' I said, 'Sure I'll go with you. Now who are you?' And he said he was Ian Paisley."

On their first proper date – a trip to a Presbyterian church service in Bangor – he proposed. "Ian was spontaneous," Eileen said. "He was a fine figure of a man and very kind. There was a great spark between us. We bounced off each other. When we kissed, it was the way it's meant to be."

Although a Christian couple, the Paisleys' relationship was not anaemic – Ian was an affectionate suitor. Eileen said: "One afternoon, he drove me to work, holding my hand. We'd stopped at traffic when a policeman knocked the window and told Ian to keep both hands firmly on the wheel."

He was forever buying her clothes or jewellery – a habit he kept in old age, placing presents under her pillow.

When he was travelling abroad as First Minister, he continued the practice he followed throughout his political career – he would ring Eileen the moment he arrived somewhere last thing at night and plenty of times in between.

She was the only person he completely trusted with confidences and guidance. Her significance in his political career can't be over-emphasised. His legacy is hers too. But above all else, theirs was a great love affair.

"We always have fun," Eileen told me. "We share the same interests. We have great chats. So many married couples don't. A spark like that between a man and a woman is a precious thing."

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