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Orange Order, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Ian and I pray for Gerry Adams

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Eileen Paisley knows that to women, of a certain age and outlook, her husband is something of a sex symbol. He'll ask for 'the kiss of life' during elections and there'll be no shortage of middle Ulster matrons willing to deliver.

"Oh, I don't mind at all because Ian's no philanderer," says Eileen. "But I remember one woman telling me how wonderful he was and how she would wash his shirts any day, and I thought 'there's an awful lot more to being Ian Paisley's wife than washing his shirts.'"

Nobody could dispute that. Five children, nearly 50 years of marriage – next year is their golden wedding anniversary – and countless political storms later, the Paisleys remain genuinely in love. They light up in each other's company.

Eileen's warmth and grace is apparent from the moment she opens the door of 'The Parsonage', their handsome Victorian home in East Belfast. The Paisley women have a sense of humour. A bronze bust of Ian, looking stern, dominates the hall. "Rhonda will be putting a Santa hat and some holly on him for Christmas. In the summer, we give him a boater!" Eileen declares.

Soon, she will have new responsibilities. The British government is due to announce her appointment to the House of Lords. It will be Baroness Paisley, probably of St George's, a working-class part of Belfast's Sandy Row "which I'd the honour to represent as a councillor many years ago".

Her husband calls her 'the Boss' (and sometimes 'honeybunch') and describes her as the only person who can order Ian Paisley about. Others insist she walks in his shadow. A female journalist recently dismissed her as his handmaiden.

"I laughed at that. I've probably been places and done more things than those making unkind comments. Just because I grow my own fruit and make 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 are 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."

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. She'd heard about the firebrand preacher, six years her senior, and went to see him. "He was passionate and vibrant," she says.

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 asked 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." Afterwards, they had supper in a café: "Ian had a big mixed grill and I'd a small mixed grill."

On their first proper date – a trip to a Presbyterian Church service in Bangor, and more supper – Ian proposed. "I was shocked it came so quickly. I loved my parents, they were very calm people, but Ian was spontaneous. 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."

Years later, driving home from Bangor with her twins, Ian jnr and Kyle, Eileen said: "'Now boys, do you know what happened me on this stretch of road? Your daddy asked me to marry him.' 'Oh is that all?', they replied. 'We thought you had a crash or something.'"

Ian was an affectionate suitor: "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 always buying her "wee pieces of jewellery" and clothes: "If a dress in a window caught his eye, he'd ring me and take me to the shop. If I liked it, he'd buy it. Even now when I come home with shopping he'll want me to try clothes on immediately so he can have a look."

Oddly, for a 1950s wedding, Eileen didn't promise to obey: "Ian says I twisted the minister's arm to leave that out!" She was interested in politics before she 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 Ian became an elected representative, and was later elected to the Stormont Assembly. When Paisley was jailed, she addressed protest rallies across the North "to get the venom out of me".

Once, she rounded on police arresting him, "though I didn't use any bad language". After another conviction, she asked the judge "if he would sleep soundly at night while my husband lay in jail". When Paisley was barred from the US, Eileen went on a speaking tour, addressing the Press Club in Washington among others. Ian went to Canada. Their love letters were couriered across the border, she says.

She doesn't dislike Catholics, she says: "It's Sinn Féin/IRA who annoy me. Not that if Gerry Adams was standing in front of me I'd want to be nasty or hit him. And if I heard something bad had happened to him I wouldn't rejoice. Death is so final."

Indeed, she prays for Sinn Féin leaders: "Ian and I always pray for our enemies. I'll ask that God will show Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness his way and that they'll ask for forgiveness. The apostle Paul was once a wicked man. He did awful things but was saved."

Over the years, she has liked several nationalist politicians, including John Hume: "I sat beside him on the plane to Strasbourg and we had great craic. An English lord who over-heard said: 'I didn't think you people liked each other.' And I thought, 'typical English, you just don't understand Northern Ireland'."

She never warmed to David Trimble: "He'd visit the house and I'd make tea. Then, I'd see him again in public and he'd not even say hello." She knows her husband is a hated by some: "It doesn't bother me. People are entitled to their likes and dislikes."

Even at the height of the Troubles, she tried not to worry about the assassination risk he 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."

It annoys when people prejudge him. "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." At home, her husband is quiet: "You'd hardly know he was there. He saves all his shouting for outside!"

Paisley had condemned the Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon", yet Eileen recalls 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!"

Eileen will be interested in women's rights' issues in the Lords: "I was raging when a survey this week showed many people think if a woman dresses or behaves a certain way she deserves to be raped. Even if a woman walks naked down the street, no-one has a right to rape her."

Eileen (73) is both traditional and progressive. She detests the "adultery and sodomy storylines" of the soaps – "it would take a mountain of detergent to clean them".

Yet she stood firm amidst some Free Presbyterian disapproval of her daughters for wearing trousers, make-up and jewellery: "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." Daughter Rhonda, who is suing the DUP for sexual discrimination, has her mother's "full support and love". There are "no splits in this family", says Eileen.

She listens to Handel and traditional Irish music, and has every Maeve Binchy novel – "my daughter Cherith got her to sign one for me". Drinking and dancing are deemed "immoral" in the Paisley household, yet Ian serenades his wife and reads her poetry. 'Byron', the Paisleys' black cat is asleep on a leather chair. 'Shelley', his twin, is out on the prowl.

Paisley never forgets birthdays or anniversaries, and still buys surprise presents: "He woke me one night and told me to look under the pillow. He'd left a beautiful watch there."

Eileen lifts a favourite ornament, Ian's gift on their 30th wedding anniversary. It's a man and woman making a toast at dinner. Beside them sits a bucket of ice holding what looks suspiciously like champagne. The devil's buttermilk under Paisley's roof? "No! No!" says Eileen unconvincingly. "That's Shloer!"

The garden, where she grows strawberries, rhubarb, apples, and gooseberries, is her pride and joy. "I come out in winter to feed the birds and that wee robin follows me all over the place!"

The overpowering bond in the house, though, is between Eileen and Ian: "Wherever he travels, first thing he'll do on arrival is ring me. He rings me last thing at night, and plenty of times in between.

"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.'"

November 28, 2005

This article appears in the November 27, 2005 edition of the Sunday Tribune.