The former News Letter editor who was brought in by Drew Nelson to help turn around the image of the Orange Order has paid heartfelt tribute to “a truly great man who represented his culture better than anyone else I’ve ever known”.
Austin Hunter said that he was “so saddened” by news of Mr Nelson’s sudden cancer diagnosis in May and his untimely death on Monday at the age of 60.
Mr Hunter, who is now working in the Balkans, told the News Letter: “Drew was a truly great man who represented his culture better than anyone else I’ve ever known.
“He understood the good and the bad. He understood that the Orange community hadn’t always been good at promoting itself.
“He was very good at promoting the leaders of tomorrow who would follow in his footsteps long after he’d gone. He made the leaders of tomorrow listen to other opinions, bringing in journalists from publications that would not be naturally sympathetic to the Orange Order.
“He wanted to promote the strengths of his community. His loss – to the whole community – is incalculable.”
Mr Hunter recalled how he first encountered Mr Nelson in 2004.
“I got to know Drew when I was at the News Letter,” he said.
“He came in to see me because he was concerned about the image of the Orange Order which came across in the media.
“We went for a short lunch close by and I was very, very impressed by this man – I’d been aware of him but we’d never met up until then. It was the start of a long and successful relationship.”
After Mr Hunter left the News Letter to set up a PR consultancy, Mr Nelson again approached him and engaged him as the Order’s spokesman and media adviser, a position which he held for six years.
“We really set about changing some of the images of the Orange Order. He knew there was a PR problem within Orangeism and he tackled it head-on.”
Mr Hunter said that he found Mr Nelson to be “a man whose big cause was to promote his culture and to promote it positively”.
“I went to Washington with Drew to the Smithsonian Festival in 2007. They took a stand at the festival in shadow of the White House to promote Orangeism – that was all Drew’s idea.
“I also went down to the big Battle of the Boyne site on the day that Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern opened it. He did an awful lot of work with Martin and Mary McAleese. I was with him in the Oireachtas when he addressed the Seanad.”
Mr Hunter said that the late grand secretary had been keen to promote the Twelfth as an event.
He said that Mr Nelson was a keen historian who travelled around the world – from the Notting Hill Carnival to festivals in Spain – to see how others approached major street celebrations.
“For many different reasons, in Drew’s eyes, the media didn’t give the Orange Order good coverage.
“But no matter what media outlet asked, no matter what the controversy, Drew always did interviews.
“He believed, as do I, that you can’t ask the media to just do good stories all the time – they have the right to do negative stories.
“He also felt he had a responsibility to answer tough questions and not shy away. Because of that, journalists loved him because they knew that he would front up and answer their questions.”
And he said that Mr Nelson had been central to the anti-binge drinking campaign which the Orange Order launched ahead of this year’s Twelfth.
“He was very much a law and order man – he had served in the UDR, he was a solicitor and had many friends in the police.
“Drew did not like people who broke the law. He was utterly opposed to terrorism from any section of the community.”