The former ‘first lady of the DUP’ has expressed support for a united Ireland in a groundbreaking statement from a figure who would have been seen as a staunch unionist.
Eileen Paisley, widow of the late Ian Paisley Sr, made her comments in an interview at an exhibition in Belfast dedicated to her late husband. The former DUP leader was a lifelong opponent of Irish nationalism and became a byword for unionist intransigence.
Mrs Paisley even questioned partition, the creation of the border in Ireland in 1922. She said: “I just wonder why it had to be divided at that time, and I think perhaps that was a wrong division.”
The interviewer asked Eileen Paisley if she could live in a united Ireland. She replied: “Well it would depend, I suppose... how it was being ruled.”
On the question of whether she could stay living in Belfast if Ireland was united, she said: “I would like to think I could. It would take a lot to move me out of it. You know if we have freedom of worship and freedom of choice in life.”
Mrs Paisley isn’t the first from a unionist background to show a change in attitude. In July 2018, former leader of the DUP Peter Robinson said the north should prepare for a united Ireland. He said so in the context of a border poll voting in favour of Irish unity.
An exit poll this week indicated growing support for an unconditional united Ireland in the 26 Counties. Excluding those who are undecided, more than 77% would favour immediate reunification. Added to similar polls in the North, more than two-thirds of voters on the island back reunification.
It has added to pressure for the British government to hold a border poll on unity in line with the measure set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Unionist commentator Alex Kane has said such a poll is now “inevitable” and said preparations should be underway, particularly among unionists.
“I have spent too much of my life watching unionists failing to prepare for one train after another coming down the track; even though they will have seen the steam and heard the whistle,” he wrote.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said now is the time for Ireland’s leaders to “prioritise planning” for reunification.
“The issue of Irish unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit, which has again showed the failure of partition and division,” she said.
“Demographics are changing and so too is the political landscape across Ireland. All parties that see the value of reunification and hold to the ideal of unity must act to begin a national conversation.
“There is a particular onus on the Irish government to begin to plan for unity, to progress the debate and to publish a green paper for unity.”
Ms O’Neill said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “cannot ignore these present realities”.
“He should establish an All-Ireland forum to start the process and conversations on our shared constitutional future,” she added.