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Eileen: The love of Ian Paisley's life

After a lifetime spent in Ian's shadow, Eileen Paisley came out fighting this week. And what we saw was a woman fiercely protective of her family and utterly devoted to her husband

By Alex Kane

When asked what his first memory of Eileen was – he met her in the summer of 1950 when she and her brother had come to hear this 'new young preacher' – Ian Paisley says: "She was a bully. She just bullied me and I just had to collapse. I fell for her immediately and scraped my knees. I went down with a plump. She has been my right-hand person all the days of my life."

That's a pretty good first impression. So good, in fact, that Paisley telephoned her a few days later and asked her if she would like to go to a meeting with him at an Orange Hall and make a copy of the speech he was to make. Not the most romantic proposal, perhaps, but an ideal night out for a young woman who was interested in current affairs and who was trained in shorthand typing.

It sounds almost trite to say it now, but it was the beginning of a life-long romance. Anyone who saw Eileen defend her husband on last Monday's Paisley: From Genesis to Revelations saw a woman as hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels in love with him as she has ever been.

Theirs is a rock-solid relationship and friendship and, as she told a journalist in November 2005, "We always have fun. We share the same interests. That's very important for a husband and wife. If Ian's out late, I'll sit up to 2am so we can talk. We have great chats. So many married couples don't. A spark like that, between a man and woman, is a precious thing. Sometimes when he's away, I'll tell him I miss him, and he'll say, 'Eileen, we'll have all of heaven together.'"

Eileen Emily Cassells was born in Belfast in 1934. Her father owned a shop in east Belfast and when she was in her teens she had considered a career in journalism. Her father thought that a secretarial career was a safer, better option at that stage and she followed his advice. But her passion for politics never diminished: "I always wanted to know what was going on around me. I was always aware that my values as a Christian and as a unionist were always under threat. I may have been a woman, but I was never going to be subservient to anyone."

And so unwilling was she to be subservient to anyone that she refused to make the 'I promise to obey' vow during her wedding to Ian Paisley on October 13, 1956. Theirs was to be a marriage of equals: a marriage in which they discussed everything together and in which it became increasingly clear that she had an enormous influence on every decision he made.

In 1964 it was Eileen, rather than Ian, who first stood for election. Both were linked to Ulster Protestant Action – a fringe group closely connected to the Ulster Unionist Party – which supported preferential employment legislation to favour Protestants and promoted the right for loyalists to hold more parades and marches. Even before Terence O'Neill's liberal agenda was being actively promoted within the party, the Paisleys had sniffed the air and detected concession and sell-out.

She stood as an Ulster Protestant Action candidate in the 1964 elections to the-then Belfast Corporation, campaigning against the UUP's Martin Kelso Wallace, who had been Lord Mayor in 1963 and had approved the lowering of the Union flag to mark the death of Pope John XXII. She lost by a margin of two-to-one, but over the next few years she was to be seen at her husband's side during many anti-O'Neill, anti-ecumenical rallies and protests.

When her husband was imprisoned in July 1966 (he had refused to pay a fine after being found guilty of involvement in a riot) it led to some of the worst rioting that Belfast had seen in decades.

She brought a message from the prison: "The people who have been fighting the police have no connection with our church. The vast majority of the rioters are just hooligans." It was precisely the same sort of distancing language that her husband was to employ on so many subsequent occasions across the decades.

She stood again in the 1967 local elections, this time for the Protestant Unionist Party (which, a few years later in 1971, would fold into the newly-formed DUP) and won a seat in the St George's ward off Sandy Row.

She proved adept at keeping her name in the headlines and playing to unionists who has becoming increasingly disenchanted with what she described as "elite big-house unionism". She and her husband were both elected to the 1973 Assembly and the 1975 Convention.

By the time that Convention collapsed, the Paisleys had a houseful of children: Sharon (18), Rhonda (15), Cherith (10) and twins Ian and Kyle (8). Ian was now a household name, leader of a growing political party, a Member of Parliament and moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. He was also under threat from the IRA and had a full-time security detail. The family lived in a large and comfortable manse in Cyprus Avenue and Eileen opted for a life out of the public eye.

But no one close to Ian Paisley ever underestimated her continuing influence over him: "You had to get it past him and then he had to get it past her" was how one senior member of both the party and the church put it.

Ironically, it was probably Eileen who had the better 'feel' for everyday politics. Her husband was always much more emotional in public and more inclined to be guided by his heart. She – and maybe it had something to do with her early desire to be a journalist – had a better eye for the detail and nuance. She, one senses, was the calming influence at the end of a long day.

And, as he got older, she became increasingly protective of him. To the surprise of many, she was at his side during the St Andrews negotiations in October 2006 and those close to him acknowledge that she was instrumental in persuading him to push ahead with the power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein. "We prayed about and talked about it. We knew the price that we would have to pay with friends and colleagues."

It has been a very long journey for her, too. Forty years after her election victory in the St George's ward in 1967 (a victory recalled in her title Baroness Paisley of St George's) – on a campaign against Ulster Unionist weakness and concession – she had persuaded her husband to go into power with Sinn Fein.

She had done it, as had he, because they believed it was the right thing to do. Many lifelong friends believed that they had betrayed them and their country.

She and Ian now look isolated. They sounded angry in the Eamonn Mallie programmes and her anger, particularly the manner in which it was expressed against Nigel Dodds, Peter Robinson and her husband's former special adviser, Timothy Johnston, has propelled her into the spotlight again. But at heart it is the Eileen of old: fiercely protective of her family and devoted to her husband.

Whatever people many think of her (and, to be honest, many observers believe that neither she nor Ian did themselves any favours in the interviews), I suspect most people would hope that their partner of almost 65 years would be as devoted, loving and loyal.

The bedrocks of their religious and political lives may have crumbled, but their marriage and love is as strong as ever. I think she would be happy with that as her legacy.

Belfast Telegraph


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