Claiming what is rightfully hers

  • 23 November 2005
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A vegetarian, born-again Christian who doesn't drink, Rhonda Paisley would really like to be a painter. Her action against the DUP is not about 'Paisley versus Paisley', but about women's struggle for positions within the DUP. By Susan McKay

'Dad said to me: "Rhonda, I believe in playing straight, but if someone tries to take what I have rightfully won, I don't believe in letting them get away with it." This is how Rhonda Paisley recalled her father's advice to her after a setback due to what she saw as the disloyalty of so-called friends in the Democratic Unionist Party while she was a Belfast city councillor in the 1980s. "He is right," she went on. "There is no such thing as a friend in politics, and women in politics are fine until they assert themselves and claim what is rightfully theirs."

Dad, of course, the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, potential First Minister, moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, and the man of whom the late poet, WR Rodgers wrote, "There, but for the grace of God, goes God".

Rhonda was writing in 1992, in the Irish Reporter. Now she is once again attempting to claim what she believes is rightfully hers. This time, it is a job she didn't get in the policy unit of the DUP. Backed by the North's Equality Commission, she is suing the party for sexual discrimination. The job was given to Phillip Weir, a Craigavon councillor and recent defector from the Ulster Unionist Party. A DUP spokesman said the party was "content that the best person got the job".

Rhonda worked as her father's assistant while he was a member of the European Parliament. When he stood down last year, she became unemployed. The policy job came up a few months later. She was interviewed by a panel headed by Richard Bullick, also formerly of the UUP. Towards the end of 2004, she heard she hadn't been successful. She began proceedings in March this year. The case is listed as Rhonda Paisley versus Alan Ewart and others, Ewart being the DUP's chief executive.

The others include Ian Paisley ('Dad'), Ian Paisley junior (baby brother), Sammy Wilson (former boyfriend and the man who made her Lady Mayoress when he was Lord Mayor) and pretty much all of the rest of the party's big shots. Even Paul Berry, currently fighting the party's attempt to discipline him after tabloid allegations about an assignation with a male masseur in a Belfast hotel. (Berry allegedly spoke about having formerly received a massage, during his Caribbean honeymoon, from a "wee darkie girl.")

First reports of Rhonda's case were headlined "Paisley versus Paisley" and there was much speculation about the mood at the breakfast table in the Paisley's east Belfast home, where Rhonda (45), still lives with her parents. Paisley is the great patriarch of Northern Protestantism, "God's man on earth" to his ardent supporters. How dare this girl defy him? The Guardian described them as "Ulster's Royal Family" and of course Ian has recently joined Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council, while Eileen is soon to be a Lady in the House of Lords. However, Paisley versus Paisley just isn't what this story is about.

"About time someone blew the whistle... Robinson has shipped in all these ex-official unionist whiz kids and given them well-paid jobs. The long-serving party members have had enough and stayed silent long enough. This is a fight for the heart and soul of the DUP." This was the response to the news posted by "Tandragee Loyal" on the Slugger O'Toole website. "Damn right," wrote the next blogger. "DUP HQ is chock full of UUP rejects. Why are they hiring so many people from the party of failure?"

DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson has dismissed speculation that there is a chasm between his ambitions for the party and those of his leader. There had "never been a cross word" he said. Robinson has mastered the art of not flinching when Paisley gets up to his Biblical buffoonery during what ought to be moments of high diplomacy. It is believed that Paisley's "sackcloth and ashes" outburst last December was urged on by Paisley Junior, but that Robinson had no forewarning.

A senior DUP source said last week of the Rhonda affair, "We are under strict instructions. We have been told not to speak to the press about this. You'll find that, unlike other parties, the DUP closes ranks in this kind of situation." And that is true. However, one disgruntled traditionalist told the Sunday Times that there were those in the party who "don't want a Paisley about the place".

In June, Rhonda gave an interview to the Belfast Telegraph. She spoke about her closeness to her sisters: "it's kind of all girls together", and about living with her parents: "The three of us are a good team... Dad's quite a softy really." Her mother recently revealed that she and Rhonda do all the dusting and cleaning. Traditional DUP "ladies" make mountains of scones and traybakes – about which they are highly competitive – and pour gallons of tea and orange squash at party gatherings. Fundamentalists believe women's liberation undermines the purity and discipline of the Christian home.

In her Belfast Telegraph interview, Rhonda is lukewarm about politics. She said she had done it in her 20s. "I was happy to move out of that... I quite enjoy politics in that I'm interested in it and don't mind working behind the scenes...but public life was not for me." She said her real ambition was to be a full time painter, but that "unfortunately" she hadn't reached that stage yet. "So I've worked for Dad, taught for a while...whatever I need to do. I'm looking around again."

She spoke about her pride in her dog, Bridie, and revealed that although she sometimes told people the elderly but still sprightly Springer had been named after Oliver Cromwell's daughter, this was a falsehood: "I just like the name." Her paintings sell well at several commercial galleries, though they are sniffed at by the discerning. "Not cutting edge," said one critic.

Her public life in politics was in City Hall. She was not everyone in the DUP's first choice as candidate. She displaced a then rising star of the party – a man. Her father insisted, and prevailed. Infamously, she used to blow a trumpet when Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey rose to speak. "She also used to shout 'Leadbelly' at me," he said. He was recovering from being shot by loyalists at the time. "She could be quite nasty." Maskey gave her advice about her romantic situation. (Red Hand Luke, a character from the BBC comedy series, Give My Head Peace, rates Rhonda as "a goddess".)

There is a portrait of Rhonda and Wilson in their Mayoral robes in City Hall. After the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, and the Ulster Says No campaign, the mayoral Christmas card had "Ulster says Noel" on it. She is a born-again Christian, a vegetarian and she doesn't drink. Journalist Jim McDowell recalled that after he had consumed a few "pints of liquid anaesthetic" to get him through long and acrimonious council meetings, she would give him a lift home, "and a lecture".

Sculptor Louise Walsh also has warm memories of Rhonda. The Council banned the erection of her fine sculpture, 'Monument to the unknown woman worker' in 1989, with unionists claiming it depicted harlots. "As an artist and as a woman, Rhonda was really supportive," she said. "She was castigated by the DUP because Sinn Féin was also backing the sculpture. I found her very emotional and committed and moral. She had real integrity."

Walsh felt Rhonda paid a high price for being her father's daughter. "She was a real Daddy's girl. She adored him, but other people in the party and in the Free Presbyterian Church used her to get at him. She's a more interesting person than her brother, Ian Junior, but he is the one who has got on in DUP politics." In the 1990s Rhonda went to Greece to teach, but it didn't work out well. She presented a BBC chatshow, but walked out after the first programme because of insults to her father. She once acted as a guest presenter on RTÉ's Late, Late Show.

Her Irish Reporter piece is angry and feminist. "Unionism is male dominated," she wrote. "Opportunities for women to advance within party ranks are complicated by 'the Brotherhood'". There certainly exists an attitude among males which is at its best dismissive and at its worst downright chauvinistic towards women involved in politics... Had it not been for my father's encouragement – and having him as a staunch ally in the party – I would not have felt inclined to run for election for a second term." She would rather destroy her vote, she wrote, than use it to elect certain DUP politicians. Their insecurity made them want to keep women "in their place."

This was all long before the defection of the UUP's "baby barristers", of course, but the Donaldson boys won't have made the DUP any more feminist, though Arlene Foster has an interest in women's issues. Iris Robinson is the sole female MP out of nine. The DUP has a battle on its hands, then, but the party leader's dusting will still be done.p