Terminal diagnosis didn’t spoil grand secretary’s Royal appointment

The Prince of Wales meets Lambeg drummers during a visit to the Orange Order heritage museum in Loughgall. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The Prince of Wales meets Lambeg drummers during a visit to the Orange Order heritage museum in Loughgall. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A royal endorsement for the Museum of Orange Heritage was one of Drew Nelson’s finest hours as an Orangeman – and even a terminal illness diagnosis wasn’t going to ruin the day, writes Mark Rainey.

On May 24 this year, a long-held ambition of the Order’s grand secretary became a reality when the heir to the British throne, the Prince of Wales, visited Sloan’s House in Loughgall.

(L-R) Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary, Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, and Harold Henning, Deputy Grand Master, outside the new Museum of Orange Heritage, Sloan's House, Loughgall

(L-R) Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary, Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, and Harold Henning, Deputy Grand Master, outside the new Museum of Orange Heritage, Sloan's House, Loughgall

The Royal stamp of approval for the Grand Lodge was an acknowledgement of just how far the Institution had come in terms of improving public perception, and Drew Nelson was the main strategist steering it towards calmer waters.

The often misunderstood – and frequently vilified – organisation has always valued adherence to the Protestant faith over wider public acceptance, but the thinking man’s Orangeman had the credibility to usher in a new era.

However, as schoolchildren chattered excitedly in the sunshine waiting for the arrival of Prince Charles, news of Drew’s life-shattering prognosis was beginning to spread among the assembled media.

There was a sense of great sadness such was the affable media-performer’s universal popularity, but also disbelief due to his obvious joy at what was almost certainly the first time the Order had hosted a high-ranking Royal.

Drew’s warmth and diplomacy was already being credited with bringing not only Prince Charles but the Republic’s heritage minister Heather Humpreys to the Institution’s birthplace.

Drew’s beaming smile belied any inner turmoil as he greeted the welcome visitors. I was looking at a man who had achieved a dream. He was leaving his beloved Orange Order in arguably the best shape (at least in terms of community relations) of its 221-year history.