UUP Orangemen Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy who defied ban on going to Catholic Mass urge rethink
Two leading Orangemen who faced the threat of disciplinary action for attending a murdered Catholic PSNI officer's funeral have backed calls to review the Order's ban on members attending Catholic Mass.
Ulster Unionists Tom Elliott MP and Danny Kennedy MLA were speaking yesterday after senior Orangeman Mervyn Gibson - an Assistant Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland - said he was open to a rule change in the future.
In 2011, Mr Elliott and Mr Kennedy attended the funeral Mass of murdered police officer Ronan Kerr. They were subject to a complaint by a Belfast lodge, but were later cleared.
Among the rules for Orange Order members is the instruction: "You should not countenance by your presence or otherwise any act or ceremony of Popish worship."
Both men say they have no regrets about attending Constable Kerr's funeral, and believe there is a growing demand to change the rule.
"I'm always open for discussion on the rules but it's a matter for the Orange Order if they want to have that debate or not," said Mr Elliott.
Asked if the Orange Order had suffered embarrassment over the controversy surrounding their attendance at Mr Kerr's funeral the Fermanagh MP said: "It was under very difficult circumstances - a police officer had been murdered by republican terrorists. I'm sorry that I had to go to the funeral at all. I have no regrets about what I've done."
He continued: "In fairness in many areas of Northern Ireland where people have neighbours or people they know well, particularly for funerals, they feel it's appropriate they should attend that funeral or even a wedding.
"That doesn't mean you have to partake in the Mass at all. That just means you attend the service out of respect."
He said now would be a good time to have the debate. "I certainly think there's an opportunity for the Orange Order to have that discussion. Within the wider Orange family I'm sure that would be a healthy discussion."
Mr Kennedy said he had been to many Catholic services in the past "largely without incident" and that it was common practice for Orangemen.
"My sense of it is that, particularly in rural areas, it's a rule where there's little or no enforcement of it," he said.
Regarding Mr Kerr's funeral he said: "We attended on the basis of showing respect to a young murdered police officer and I think there was widespread acceptance that was the right thing to do.
"I'm a member of the Orange Order now for over 40 years so I understand there are strong feelings still on the issue. Mervyn is right - there are some in favour of change and others who take a more traditional line. In certain circumstances people should be trusted to use their own common sense and find their own way through it.
"I've attended the funerals of work colleagues before and in some cases friends or neighbours. And that is very often the case for people in the rural community. My attendance was to be supportive and in the hope of bringing a degree of comfort to the families who were grieving."
In 2014, a survey of the Co Fermanagh Grand Orange Lodge polled members on the following statement: "I think the rule about attending a Roman Catholic church should be changed."
Half (49.7%) of the members said they agreed, just 25.3% disagreed, and 25% were unsure.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback show, Mr Gibson had said he had attended homes and wakes of "Roman Catholics and republicans" and prayed for the families "and with them".
"That rule harks back to a day when people said 'don't go into the chapel' and I accept that but equally it can be changed. And it may be changed."
While accepting the current rules he added: "The opportunity is there for it to be changed."