Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Stevenson tipped to be new Orange Order leader

Orange Order Grand Master Robert Saulters is stepping down after 14 years

The Orange Order will choose a new leader today with senior figure Edward Stevenson tipped to take the post.

The Order's Grand Master Robert Saulters is to leave office after 14 years.

The period was one of the most controversial in the organisation's history when Orange Order parades were often surrounded by large scale violence.

Mr Stevenson is tipped to be elected to the top post when senior Orangemen meet in Co Londonderry, though the emergence of a surprise alternative candidate cannot be ruled out.

Mr Stevenson, a 55-year-old farmer from Co Tyrone, is also the Orange Order's County Grand Master of Tyrone.

A spokesman for the Order declined to comment on the likely outcome of the meeting and said: "It would be inappropriate to speculate."

Mr Saulters took the helm in 1996 as the Drumcree dispute came to prominence when residents objected to Orangemen marching through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown, Co Armagh.

The summer months of the late 1990s saw street disturbances and serious violence at a number of parade flashpoints across Northern Ireland.

A relatively small number of parade routes now cause controversy but there remains a high potential for violence.

Last July riots raged for several days at Ardoyne in north Belfast in the wake of a march through the area.

Northern Ireland politicians held talks at Hillsborough Castle in January 2010 and successfully carved out a deal to stabilise the power-sharing administration at Stormont.

But the package included proposals on replacing the Parades Commission, which currently adjudicates on parades disputes, but which is boycotted by the Orange Order.

The new framework sought to secure agreements on marches by fostering talks at local level between marchers and nationalist community groups.

But the plan collapsed when it was rejected by the Orange Order, despite the widespread belief that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had negotiated a blueprint that Orangemen would support.

During his tenure Mr Saulters often proved a controversial figure. He hit the headlines in recent months for comments in an article where he said dissident republican groups were a front for what he called the "Roman Catholic IRA".

But in 2006 he was among leaders of loyal orders who met the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland for the first time.

The new leader of the Orange Order will face the uphill task of finding a route through the parades impasse.

The Government has formed a new Parades Commission to continue the work of the organisation in the absence of an alternative.

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