The race to replace Robert Saulters as Grand Master of the Orange Order is wide open, senior sources have suggested.
Up to 300 members of the grand lodge of Ireland, the institution’s ruling body, are due to meet on December 8 to vote for a successor.
The favourite would appear to be Mr Saulters’ current deputy, Edward Stevenson, who is the county grand master of Tyrone.
But the present grand secretary, Drew Nelson, who has played a prominent role in recent years, revealed yesterday he will not be a contender.
And a number of other senior figures, including treasurer William McKeown and ex-Belfast grand master Dawson Baillie, are also thought unlikely to stand.
Other prospects, however, include one of the two assistant grand masters, the Rev Alistair Smyth. The other, David McNarry, the Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford, has also ruled himelf out, as has Mr Baillie’s successor as Belfast grand master, Tom Haire.
One senior source said: “The fact is that anyone can put themselves forward, even on the day itself.”
Mr Nelson said: “Robert Saulters has been grand master for 14 years during a very turbulent period in Northern Ireland, having taken over in 1996 at the height of the Drumcree crisis, and then the disbandment of the RUC the paramilitary ceasefires, which there was a great deal of scepticism about, creating a lot of uncertainty in the unionist community, and the arson attacks on more than 100 Orange halls.
“He not only held the institution together during this time but also there were important political concessions, including rates being removed from Orange halls and changes in the criminal damage legislation which helped protect us from the arson attacks.”