The Orange Order lost its heartbeat and “perhaps its greatest ever advocate” with the passing of its Grand Secretary Drew Nelson, the Institution’s grand master has said.
Mr Nelson, 60, died on Monday morning following a short battle with cancer.
A solicitor with his own practice for 35 years, the former part-time UDR officer was a life-long resident of Dromore, Co Down and one of the brightest lights within Orangeism.
Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, led tributes to the highly respected Orange leader, ambassador and visionary.
“Today, the Orange Institution has lost not only its heartbeat, but perhaps its greatest ever advocate,” he said yesterday.
“Drew was a towering figure within the Orange fraternity, whose commitment and devotion to the principles of Orangeism are simply unrivalled.
“No other individual, over the course of the past decade, has done more to champion the cause of the Institution and its membership. His contribution to promoting a tradition he was immensely proud to represent, was truly outstanding,” Mr Stevenson added.
First Minister Arlene Foster it was “very difficult to take in” the news of her dear friend’s death – and praised the courage he displayed since his terminal diagnosis earlier this year.
“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 principles of the organisation was something that was widely admired,” she said.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: “Drew represented what I would describe as a modern, progressive form of Orangeman. He was proud but not boastful of his heritage.”
The Order’s Belfast county grand chaplain and Assistant Grand Master Mervyn Gibson said Mr Nelson “left many legacies”.
Rev Gibson said: “While many of us expected [his passing], it still comes as a shock in the end when someone so key to the Institution passes away.
“He was absolutely a colossus within the Institution. He was an innovator, he was pragmatist, he was one who has driven the Institution, along with the other leaders, over this last 10-15 years.
“Drew has many legacies within the Institution and one of them is the Museum of Orange Heritage. He had driven that from the start and it was his vision to see it open – and thankfully he did see it open.
“Drew was always at the centre of the discussions. He was always one that brought wisdom to the decisions that were made and he showed leadership.
“That is why he will be so missed within the Institution. He had still, we believe, so much to offer but sadly his life was cut short.”
Commenting on the main highlights of Mr Nelson’s time with the Orange Order, Rev Gibson said: “I have known Drew for nearly 30 years and Drew was always great at lobbying, from the highest in the land, from Westminster to Stormont to the Dail right to American politicians, Drew was never afraid to speak up for the Orange Institution, telling people what his vision for the Institution was and what it was about.
“In terms of legacies, the museum [of Orange heritage] is one, the visit of Prince Charles [to Sloan’s House in Loughgall] is another. He was one of the main driving forces behind that.
“But also the state of the Institution today, with regard to our halls and the infrastructure, Drew was key to enhancing that and to modernising it.”
Rev Gibson said the concept of a museum telling the story of the Orange Order was one the former grand secretary took a strong personal interest, and the visit of Prince Charles was a testament to Mr Nelson’s perseverance.
“Drew had sought a Royal visit for many years and was the driving force behind that.”
The Orange chaplain praised Mr Nelson as “a visionary” who was pragmatic about modernising the Orange Order over the last 15 years.
“Drew’s passing is a massive loss to the Institution, Obviously the biggest loss will be felt by his family, and we extend our sympathy to them, but his Orange family will miss him too,” he added.