Orange Order to elect new leader
The leaders of the Orange Order will meet in Northern Ireland on Wednesday to select a new figurehead, with senior official Edward Stevenson tipped to take over.
The organisation's Grand Master Robert Saulters is to step down after a 14-year term in office, during which violence around Orange Order parades attracted international headlines.
His deputy Mr Stevenson is tipped to be elected as successor 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 selection process ahead 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 political leaders held negotiations at Hillsborough Castle in January 2010 and the talks 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.