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Drew Nelson's pivotal role needs lasting legacy

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 11/10/2016

Drew Nelson
Drew Nelson

Fear and suspicion are two of the greatest impediments to creating a more inclusive society in Northern Ireland or, indeed, across all parts of the island.

Both are born out of ignorance in most cases and that was something Drew Nelson was acutely aware of in his role as Grand Secretary of the Orange Institution.

In tributes paid to the Dromore man who died yesterday he was hailed as the greatest advocate of the Orange Order. That is true because he wanted those who saw Orangemen as totally intransigent, even sectarian, to realise just what they believed in and why so many were reluctant to compromise on issues like demonstration routes or cross-community contact.

Mr Nelson knew that the Orange Order had an image problem but haranguing members for their attitudes would only harden opinions. Instead he set out to dispel the misconceptions held by nationalists in particular about the Order.

He met Irish President Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Catholic Primate Cardinal Sean Brady and nationalist politicians. He sought to change views by engagement and at the same time demonstrated to members of the Orange Order that they needed to be more open and receptive to change.

He used his position to introduce small step changes, changes that would not alarm the most diehard members but which would sow the seeds of modernisation. He wanted the Twelfth to be a tourist attraction rather than the setting for communal tension. He wanted carnival on the streets, not carnage.

But he did not confine himself to changing attitudes in Northern Ireland. He brought the concerns of Orangemen - and the wider Protestant community - in the Republic to the attention of the Irish government. He pointed out that many felt marginalised and afraid of incurring the wrath of the authorities.

And he was given a fair hearing chiefly because he was the sort of man it was possible to do business with. As SDLP politician Alex Atwood said, Mr Nelson was a man whose style and mind was never closed. He could see the faultlines in his own organisation as well as those in opponents.

At a time when the Order is tying itself in knots over attendance of members at Catholic religious ceremonies, perhaps the greatest tribute it could pay to Mr Nelson is to continue his work in creating greater understanding between our communities.

Belfast Telegraph

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