First Minister Arlene Foster has paid tribute to Drew Nelson, the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, following his death.
The Order announced Mr Nelson's death on Monday. He was 60-years-old and had been suffering a short illness.
Drew served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland for the past 12 years.
He was part of Orange delegations which met senior political and civic figures, including successive First Ministers and Secretary of States, US ambassadors, Taoiseach Edna Kenny, former Irish President Mary McAleese, the then leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, and the SDLP, among others.
Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, said Mr Nelson played a leading role in Orangeism describing him as the organisation's "heartbeat" and "perhaps its greatest ever advocate".
First Minister Arlene Foster expressed her sympathy and said the death would be deeply felt across Northern Ireland.
She said: "The news of Drew's passing is so very difficult to take in. Even though we knew he was courageously battling his illness, it is still so final to hear that he has passed away. His death will be deeply felt right across the Orange Order fraternity and throughout Northern Ireland this morning.
"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 principals of the organisation was something that was widely admired.
"He fought his illness with tremendous courage and fortitude, and today my thoughts are with his mother, sister in law and nephews as they come to terms with this huge loss."
Ulster Unionist Party Leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA said Mr Nelson represented the modern progressive side of Orangeism.
He said: "Drew represented what I would describe as a modern, progressive form of Orangeman. He was proud but not boastful of his heritage.
"He understood the importance of putting your case in a calm, logical, respectful manner. And he identified the need to design a formal programme that would ensure a generation of future leaders within the Orange Order.
“There was never a hint of knee-jerk reaction about Drew, rather he approached every challenge with logic, taking the time to devise a strategy and identifying the key stakeholders who needed to be brought onboard.
“Sometimes, groups within the unionist community can be their own worst enemy by failing to engage with our opponents. Drew understood that if the Orange Order did not put its case forward, no one else was going to do it for them. It was difficult work, but essential to ensure the principles and heritage of the Order are understood and respected."
Mr Nesbitt continued: "Drew was also instrumental and totally supportive of the young leaders’ programme, STRIPE (Stepping Towards Reconciliation in Positive Engagement) at Queen’s University in Belfast, and funded by the European Union’s PEACE programme. This has seen dozens of young leaders given the opportunity to develop their skills and capacity to become future leaders, not just within the Orange Order, but within our society.
“His loss will be sorely felt within Orangeism. The gap will be vast, but his contribution must be the focus not just of thanksgiving, but also an inspiration to be followed.”
The Officers and Brethren of Stormont LOL 2015 also extended their sympathies.
Worshipful Master of the Lodge, William Humphrey MLA said: "When I approached Drew with the idea of forming an Orange Lodge at Stormont he was hugely supportive and was of 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. Personally, I have lost a true and very dear friend.”
SDLP West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood, who studied law alongside Mr Nelson expressed his condolences to the family of Drew Nelson following his passing.
He said: "I wish to express condolences to the family of Drew Nelson following his sad and untimely death.
“Over the years since Drew and I were students of Queen’s University, our paths sometimes crossed. We had our differences 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 and express by deep sympathy to his family circle.”
Ulster Unionist MLA and Orangeman Danny Kennedy added: "Drew was a significant figure within the Orange Order, serving as Grand Secretary for many years, leading change in the organisation, change that saw its image and reputation improve significantly across the world.
“I knew Drew primarily through my membership of the Orange Institution, and his commitment to the Orange Order and his desire to improve life in Northern Ireland was obvious.
“His passing is a huge loss to the Orange Order, but it will be felt most acutely by his Mother and the whole Nelson family circle.”
The Orange Order announced Mr Nelson's death on Monday morning.
Drew served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland for 12 years, first elected to the position in December 2004.
Previously, he was District Master of Lower Iveagh District in Co Down. Drew was a member of Listullycurran LOL 616. He was also a member of the Royal Black Institution.
Mr Nelson lobbied extensively on behalf of the Orange Institution, including at Stormont and at Westminster, as well as travelling further afield to promote and represent Orangeism. This included a groundbreaking trip to Ghana in 2005 to meet with members of the Institution in west Africa.
The Queen’s University law graduate was a solicitor for 35 years, with his own practice in Dromore, Co Down. He was also a former president of Dromore Chamber of Commerce.
A former part-time officer with the Ulster Defence Regiment, Drew previously completed an army commission course at Sandhurst University.
Prior to his high-profile position with the Orange Institution, Drew was an Ulster Unionist councillor (1993-97) and a former chair of Banbridge District Council. He stood for the party in the 1992 Westminster election in South Down. He left the UUP in 2004.
Up until his death, Mr Nelson was the chairman of the Orange Community Network.