Eileen Paisley is the matriarch of unionism in Ulster. Even though it is almost five years since the death of her husband, Ian, no other woman in or on the margins of unionist politics in the north of Ireland has commanded the same respect.
In an interview on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme this morning, the now Baroness Paisley said the most important thing for her in a united Ireland is ensuring that no-one, regardless of their religious faith, is persecuted because of it. That’s significant. Not because someone who stood alongside her husband in founding the Free Presbyterian Church wants to ensure that freedom of religious expression and freedom of worship is protected. It’s significant because it illustrates that the subject of Irish reunification is something that she has thought about.
In this, at least she has something in common with her husband’s successor Peter Robinson who, last July, told the MacGill Summer School that unionists had to prepare for a United Ireland.
After nearly 100 years of partition, there’s a growing sense of momentum.
Yesterday, RTÉ released an opinion poll which found 77% of people in the Republic of Ireland would support a united Ireland if a poll were held tomorrow. The fact that RTÉ asked the question as part of an exit poll carried out at the local government and European Parliamentary election shows that the subject of Irish reunification is registering more and more as an issue with people throughout the island of Ireland.
When asked by the interviewer, Audrey Carville, are we mature enough to share this island, she said: “I think we should be by this time and I am sure there are enough people of sense and sensibility who do not want to be fighting with their neighbours or their friends to want to have it properly united.”
In 1985 when the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave the Irish government a measure of involvement in the affairs of the north, Ian Paisley famously led the Ulster “Says No” campaign. In November 1985 at a rally at Belfast City Hall, he famously said: “”Mrs. Thatcher tells us the Republic may have some say in our province. We say, Never! Never! Never! Never!”
Ian Paisley did, however, go into government with Sinn Féin in the Assembly, developing a strong personal relationship with Martin McGuinness and that fondness continues as Mrs Paisley speaks in her interview of continuing to be texting with McGuinness during his illness, right up until he lost consciousness.
It is perhaps that personal friendship that has caused her to contemplate what would have been unthinkable for her 30 years ago. “If we go right back to the beginning, the dividing of Ireland, I think the Irish people all over – north, south, east and west – are a great people…They are a fellow countryman or woman of yours. I just wonder why it had to be divided at that time and I think perhaps it was a wrong division.”
There are those who will think perhaps Eileen Paisley’s comments are a thinly-veiled criticism of current DUP leader Arlene Foster who said last year in an interview when asked about the prospect of a united Ireland: “If it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move.”
To dismiss Mrs Paisley’s comments in such a manner would be a mistake, though. She says: “The politicians need to lay aside a lot of the baggage they’re carrying and they need to face facts. There are so many petty little things that don’t really matter in the bigger picture if they would just get out and see the needs.”
Unionism will undoubtedly consider her comments. What is yet to be seen is how or if they will act upon them. What’s most important though, is now that unionism is talking, Irish Republicanism needs to listen.