Sea of orange for funeral of Drew Nelson, 'a leader who didn't seek the limelight and was the greatest of men'
Hundreds of Orangemen join prominent public figures to say farewell and pay tribute to Drew Nelson, one of the Order's great modernisers
Without banners or bands, hundreds of Orangemen marched slowly and silently in a poignant procession yesterday to say farewell to the public face of their Order, Drew Nelson, who was hailed at his funeral as one of Northern Ireland's greatest leaders.
Sixty-year-old Mr Nelson, who died on Monday after a short illness, planned his own service right down to the last detail.
But friends said even he would have been surprised that upwards of 900 Orangemen in full regalia took up his invitation to accompany his coffin through the rolling hills of Co Down to his final resting place in the graveyard of his church.
All week Orangemen and politicians have been paying fulsome tributes to their Grand Secretary, who was particularly lauded for the way he tried to modernise the Order which he joined as a 19-year-old.
But yesterday Orangemen observed the old traditions as they gathered in their sashes in Upper Kilwarlin outside Hillsborough to walk the half-mile of Mr Nelson's last journey to St John's Parish Church, insistent that the funeral was exempt from Parades Commission determinations.
The hearse, with Orange lilies among the flowers on top of the coffin, was preceded by Mr Nelson's solemn-faced colleagues from Listullycurran LOL 616, whose secretary he had been for 30 years.
Orange leaders including the Grand Master Edward Stevenson took it in turns to carry Mr Nelson's coffin in the autumn sunshine. But at the gates of St John's, the Orangemen - again at Mr Nelson's request - removed their collarettes, though the tiny 150-seater church could only accommodate family, friends, top Orange officials and leading faces from the political world.
Headed by First Minister Arlene Foster and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, they also included Tom Elliott, Peter Weir, William Humphrey, Danny Kennedy and Jeffrey Donaldson.
The rest of the mourners took their seats in a massive marquee across the road to listen to the addresses which were relayed via loudspeakers, including one from the DUP leader, who was a friend of Mr Nelson.
St John's rector, the Rev David Pierce, described Mr Nelson as one of Northern Ireland's greatest leaders "not just through the Orange Institution but also in civic and community life".
He added: "He was a leader of men but also a humble man. He didn't seek the limelight but he was the greatest of men."
He praised him as a wise, intelligent and articulate spokesman for Orangeism and Unionism.
Mr Pierce said remembrance was important to Mr Nelson who wanted the 333 members of the Orange Order who died during the Troubles to be remembered.
The cleric also said the frequent attacks on Orange halls which Mr Nelson maintained, developed and improved had "grieved him sorely".
He praised Mr Nelson as a politician and said he was a principled man who never shirked responsibility, adding that he had been prepared to lay his life on the line by joining the Ulster Defence Regiment and being commissioned as an officer after attending Sandhurst.
He said Mr Nelson had shared the pain of the UDR and the heavy price they paid as a result of the terrorist campaign.
He went on: "At the height of the Troubles he witnessed terrible events. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the victims.
"The bravery of Drew and the men and women who served in the UDR is something we must never forget."
Mr Pierce also praised Mr Nelson's work for 35 years as a "courteous, effective family solicitor who carried out his legal work in a business-like manner".
"But it was much more than a business - Drew was a generous and kind man who influenced other people's lives," he said, adding that despite rising to national prominence he never forgot his roots in Dromore.
The rector said that Mr Nelson was a courageous man whose thoughts when he became ill in May weren't of self-pity but rather of concern for his widowed mother, Meta, and the family of his brother Brian, who died from cancer in 2012.
He said death held no fear for Mr Nelson, who sent a text message to his friends from his hospital bed which read "God has created me for a purpose and now he is calling me home".
The cleric also said that as he and Mr Nelson prepared for yesterday's funeral service he asked him what he thought his legacy might be through his involvement in local politics as a councillor.
Mr Nelson told him it was the acceptance by councils in Northern Ireland of his proposal that any new signs in their areas should contain not only the names of the roads but also those of the historic townlands they were in.
He added: "So the next time you look at a sign at the end of a country road with the townland below it remember it was Drew Nelson's idea."
SDLP Assemblyman Alex Attwood, who knew Mr Nelson from their days as law students at Queen's University in Belfast, was among the mourners yesterday.
And Mrs Foster, who became friendly with him during her time at QUB's legal department, paid an emotional tribute to him during the service.
She said: "Drew never opted out. He always wanted to contribute the best of his ability to whatever organisation he was involved in. He was a committed unionist who always looked beyond the narrow interest to the goal of strengthening the Union which he so cherished."
She said Mr Nelson was a thinker whose advice to his friends was always considered and balanced. Drew was never given to trite and glib statements. Wise counsel from him was always the order of the day. Many of us here today can testify to the fact that his advice stood us in good stead," she added.
The First Minister said that Mr Nelson epitomised what a good Orangeman should be and added that the Order's new museums in Belfast and Co Armagh were fitting legacies to him.
She said that the visit by Prince Charles to the Loughgall museum in May had been a particular highlight for Mr Nelson, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Mrs Foster said the Royal visit was made all the more important for Mr Nelson "because he knew then that his time in this world was short". She said Mr Nelson was a calm man who had been in good spirits when she last visited him in hospital, when he talked to her about the future and the need to keep moving forward for unionism and for the good of all.
The First Minister added: "Drew Nelson was ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. He was at peace with himself and at peace with God."