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Arlene Foster leads tributes to Drew Nelson, as 'heartbeat' of Orangeism dies aged 60 from cancer

Order leaders pay respects to their 'trailblazing' Grand Secretary, who became first Orangeman to address the Irish Senate

By Laurence White

Published 11/10/2016

Orange Order Grand Secretary Drew Nelson
Orange Order Grand Secretary Drew Nelson
Drew Nelson in his local Orange hall at Listullycurran near Hillsborough
Drew Nelson attending a Twelfth parade
Drew Nelson at Orange Order HQ with Rev Mervyn Gibson
Helping Jim Molyneaux with ballot boxes at Dromore HS in 1992

From the tributes paid to Drew Nelson, who died yesterday, it is evident that he was no ordinary Orangeman.

For an institution not given to hyperbole, the description of its Grand Secretary as the "heartbeat" of the Orange Order and "perhaps its greatest ever advocate" demonstrates the impact the Dromore solicitor made during his time in his pivotal role.

Mr Nelson (60) died yesterday morning after a short but brave battle with cancer.

Leading the tributes was the First Minister, Arlene Foster, who described him as a "towering figure" in Orangeism.

To those outside the Order he was that rarity, a man staunch in his beliefs and in the Orange heritage, but also savvy enough to know that it had to modernise and that outreach was a sign of strength, not weakness.

He was the first Orangeman to address the Irish Senate in July 2012, where he articulated the concerns of Protestants living along the border, who not only feared violence directed at them but also feared incurring the displeasure of the state in any way.

And he pointed out that although there were 20 Orange demonstrations each year in the Republic, they had been marginalised.

He told Senators he would like the Order to be able to march in Dublin but accepted that it would raise many challenges.

It was that mixture of pragmatism and vision which marked Mr Nelson's tenure as Grand Secretary, which he had held since 2004.

He led a campaign for de-rating of Orange halls and also pressed for new parading legislation.

Much more low-key was his work in making Orange halls more of a focal point in their local communities, helping young people gain new skills and providing them with recreational facilities.

Perhaps his most high-profile campaign was heading up attempts to introduce Orangefest - making the annual Twelfth demonstrations a more family-based day out.

It was his hope that one day it could be seen as a Northern Irish Notting Hill Carnival and that demonstrations would be tourist attractions in their own right. He travelled to Notting Hill and the Basque region to learn how their carnivals had been integrated into their communities.

But he was able to put forward his visions and drive incremental changes, only because the membership were confident that his belief in what the Order stands for was as strong as anyone's.

He had particularly strong criticism of Sinn Fein and the republican movement over attacks on Orange halls. At the re-opening of Seagoe Orange Hall in 2014, which had been burned down seven years earlier, he said: "I am clear that it was part of a well-orchestrated and centrally directed campaign by the republican movement to attack the Orange Institution, its members, its parades and its property."

He pointed out that when republicans called their ceasefire, they said the war against the British administration was over, adding: "I have to ask is the republican movement's long war against the Orange Order over?"

Yet he was keen to meet constitutional nationalists, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, former Irish President Mary McAleese and the SDLP and former Catholic Primate, Cardinal Sean Brady. And he made an impression.

SDLP MLA Alex Atwood, paying tribute to Mr Nelson, recalled how both had been students at Queen's University and how their paths occasionally crossed.

"We had our difference of opinion on a number of matters, but his style and mind were never closed. He was always plain speaking, thoughtful and loyal. I valued our occasional contact," Mr Attwood said.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper several years ago, he admitted he was not the stereotypical Orangeman - he didn't own a bowler hat and he enjoyed a glass of wine. Irish history was one of his abiding hobbies. After obtaining a law degree from Queen's University in 1979, he qualified as a solicitor two years later and then set up his own practice in Dromore, Co Down a further two years down the line.

He later became president of Dromore Chamber of Commerce.

A member of Listullycurran LOL 616, he became District Master of Lower Iveagh District in Co Down and was also a member of the Royal Black Institution.

He served as Grand Secretary of the Order for 12 years and in April this year ruled himself out of becoming its first ever chief executive, a role he argued would make the Order more professional.

The post, which carries a salary of £42,000, would also help the Order become more proactive rather than reactive, he said.

Mr Nelson was a part-time officer in the now disbanded UDR and was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party until taking up the post of Grand Secretary.

He was a UUP councillor from 1993 to 1997 and a former chair of Banbridge District Council, now part of the new Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson described Mr Nelson as the heartbeat and perhaps the greatest advocate of the Orange Institution. He added: "Drew was a towering figure within the Orange fraternity, whose commitment and devotion to the principles of Orangeism are simply unrivalled. No other individual, over the course of the past decade, has done more to champion the cause of the Institution and its membership."

He said Mr Nelson's greatest legacy was the visit by Prince Charles to the birthplace of Orangeism, Loughgall, earlier this year.

Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning described Mr Nelson as the "engine room" of the Institution.

"No other Orangeman, of perhaps any generation, will ever match his motivation and drive to see the Institution succeed and flourish... Drew was a trailblazer for Orangeism, the like of which we will never see again," he said.

Arlene Foster said: "I have known Drew for many years. He was a dear friend and I, and many like me, will miss his wise counsel. He was a towering figure in the Orange Order, doing so much to contribute to its ideals and its reputation. His commitment to the principles of the organisation was something that was widely admired."

Members of the Orange Lodge at Stormont, LOL 2015, also expressed their sadness at Mr Nelson's death.

Worshipful Master William Humphrey MLA said: "When I approached Drew with the idea of forming an Orange lodge at Stormont he was hugely supportive and great practical help as Grand Secretary in making it happen.

"This morning Ulster has lost one of its greatest sons. The Orange Institution lost its Grand Secretary and an outstanding leader. I have lost a true and very dear friend."

Mr Nelson is survived by his mother Meta, his sister-in-law Janet and nephews Scott and Stuart.

He funeral service will take place on Thursday in St John's Parish Church, Kilwarlin, with interment afterwards in the adjoining churchyard.

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