The death of the Orange Order’s widely respected grand secretary must not lead to any retreat from the reforms which he spearheaded, a senior Orange figure has said.
Drew Nelson, who for more than a decade has been the pivotal figure behind the scenes in the Institution, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in May and died in the early hours of Monday.
The Dromore solicitor’s short illness and untimely death have shocked colleagues in the Institution.
Darryl Hewitt, the Orange district master in Portadown, said that Mr Nelson’s passing just a short time after marking his 60th birthday was “terribly, terribly sad”.
Mr Hewitt, whose responsibility for the Drumcree situation meant that he worked closely with Mr Nelson, said that he was a “major loss” to Orangeism.
He told the News Letter: “He’s almost irreplaceable, I would have thought ... there will be a major chasm in the Institution for a while until things get settled down.”
Mr Hewitt said that the late grand secretary was someone who had a unique grasp of the history and procedures of the order.
The Portadown district grand master said that Mr Nelson was someone who was always contactable, working late into the night and travelling across all of the north of Ireland to lodges in far-flung parts of Ulster.
He added: “He never gave advice in a condescending manner.
“He would always ask if you were happy with what he was suggesting.”
Mr Nelson had modernised and moderated large parts of the Institution, instigating a more open and professional approach to the media, attempting to make the Twelfth more attractive to tourists and seeking to steer the Order away from getting drawn into confrontations around the handful of marches which remain controversial.
When asked if there was any chance that the changes of recent years could be reversed now that the driving force behind them has gone, Mr Hewitt said: “I would like to think not.
“I would like to think that the Orange Institution would go forward and would continue the work that Drew had started. I think that would be the best legacy that the Orange Institution could give to Drew.”
He added: “As Drew himself said on many occasions, ‘the world has moved on, the world has changed, and so the Orange Order has to change and adapt in line with that’.
“Obviously there will be a process put in place to find a grand secretary whenever it comes up to the election of officers to grand lodge.
“But whenever we reach that stage, it needs to be somebody who has a like mind to Drew – not a clone, but somebody who will carry on the work that Drew so ably started.”
Tributes to Mr Nelson spanned the political spectrum. Every major party, with the exception of Sinn Fein, issued statements marking his death.
First Minister Arlene Foster said that she would miss his “wise counsel” and described him as “a towering figure in the Orange Order, doing so much to contribute to its ideals and its reputation”.