A senior figure in Catholic education said in 1994 that if an interpretive centre was built on the site where the Orange Order was founded there was no objection to Catholic schools visiting the centre.
The comment, which was made by Paddy McCavera in the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) in a letter to consultants Capita, is contained within a file declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule.
Capita had been engaged by The Ulster Society – in which David Trimble was then involved – using public funding for cross-community initiatives in order to explore whether an Orange interpretive centre at the site of Dan Winter’s cottage in Loughgall was a viable proposal.
Mr McCavera wrote to Capita to say that he had placed the proposal before a meeting of the CCMS: “The council responded positively to the proposal and could see no objections to Catholic maintained schools participating in programmes associated with the centre.”
However, he stressed that it would be for individual Catholic schools to decide on whether they wanted to visit the centre, rather than the CCMS instructing them to do so.
The Ulster Society had applied for a grant in 1991 for an information and educational facility at the site, with a desire to see the site developed in time for 1995, the Order’s bicentenary anniversary.
The proposal was for a building which would become both a tourist attraction and an educational facility.
But progress was slow, not least because of a dispute over which cottage was the one in which the Orange had been founded and then, after agreement on the correct location, a dispute with the owner over the terms on which it would be sold.
A civil service briefing note on the situation said that “progress in purchasing the cottages and adjoining land has been problematic and the Ulster Society has run into objections from both the Planning Service and Roads Service, DOE.
“The main obstacle, however, has been a dispute between two branches of the Winter family over ownership of the land for the proposed site of the Diamond Heritage Centre.”
In 1994 Dan Winter’s cottage was listed on both historical and architectural grounds and Capita delivered its report.
The document stressed the historic significance of the Orange Order, a body which it said had grown “into a highly influential organisation with an international network ... indeed, a full appreciation of the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland, and a competent and objective understanding of current affairs requires an appreciation of the nature of Orangeism”.
“The story of Orangeism at its birth, and in its later evolution, is of intrinsic interest. As an element of the ‘cultural tradition’ of Northern Ireland and as an ingredient in the quest for ‘mutual understanding’ this story has a more practical purpose.”
It admitted that “commercial viability of the centre is not possible” but that there were wider economic and social benefits to such a project.
The project was to involve refurbishment of the two cottages and the construction of an interpretive building which would house a shop, cafe, toilets, a display space and a video theatre.
There would also be car parking, a children’s play area and a model farm and orchard.
The consultants concluded that “there exists a potential market for the facility” but that it would cost about £850,000 and would require between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors a year “to achieve its financial, economic and social impact objectives”.
In the end, the project did not go ahead for reasons which are not clear from the file. It was not until 2007 that, thanks to a £200,000 EU and Stormont grant, work began to turn the cottage into a tourist attraction.
In 2012, the Order received almost £4 million from EU, Stormont and Irish government funding to build museums of Orange heritage at its Schomberg House headquarters in east Belfast and at Sloan’s House in Loughgall.