Representatives from parties across the political spectrum have paid tribute to secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, Drew Nelson, who has died aged 60.
First Minister Arlene Foster said the news of his death was “so very difficult to take in”.
“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.”
She added: “He fought his illness with tremendous courage and fortitude, and today my thoughts are with his mother, sister-in-law and nephews as they come to terms with this huge loss.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he was “a modern, progressive form of Orangeman”.
He added: “He was proud but not boastful of his heritage. He understood the importance of putting your case in a calm, logical, respectful manner. And he identified the need to design a formal programme that would ensure a generation of future leaders within the Orange Order.”
He added: “His loss will be sorely felt within Orangeism. The gap will be vast, but his contribution must be the focus not just of thanksgiving, but also an inspiration to be followed.”
UUP MLA Danny Kennedy noted that Drew was a former UUP chairman of Banbridge District Council and said he learned of his death with “great sadness”.
“Drew was a significant figure within the Orange Order, serving as grand secretary for many years, leading change in the organisation, change that saw its image and reputation improve significantly across the world,” he added.
SDLP West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood expressed his condolences to Drew’s family.
“Over the years since Drew and I were students of Queen’s University, our paths sometimes crossed,” he said. “We had our differences of opinion on a number of matters but his style and mind were never closed. He was always plain speaking, thoughtful and loyal. I valued our occasional contact and express my deep sympathy to his family circle.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said he fought a “valiant” battle with his illness.
“Drew’s passion for a tradition which was frequently subject to unjust attack and caricature was evident to all who met him. Orangeism and the parading community generally have lost an intelligent and powerful advocate,” he said. “I hope that his family and close friends will know the presence of the Father of mercies and God of all comfort at this time of loss.”
Alliance South Antrim MLA David Ford said Drew played a key role in the Orange Order in recent years, “particularly in seeking to move the organisation forward and recognising the new reality of Northern Ireland society”.
He added: “I always had positive engagements with him in his role, both from an Alliance perspective and while justice minister. My deepest condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues on his passing.”
Worshipful Master of Stormont Lodge, William Humphrey MLA, said Drew had been “hugely supportive” of creating the lodge. “Personally, I have lost a true and very dear friend,” he added.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson described Drew as “a dear friend and a colleague in unionism and the Loyal Orders for many years”.
“He has been a tremendous source of encouragement and support to me over many years and I will always cherish the personal conversations that we had following the diagnosis of his illness just a few weeks ago,” he said.
“He made a massive contribution to the local community in the Dromore area and it is amongst his family, friends and neighbours that he will be most missed.”
Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale said he had signed her election papers in 2011. “Today’s news is very sad to all who knew him,” she said. “He was a gentleman, he advocated on behalf of his local community and had a vision for Dromore that stretched well beyond his lifetime. I will miss Drew’s counsel and quiet presence.”
DUP Alderman John Finlay said he was “an extremely able man who willingly placed his talents and skills at the disposal of the Orange Institution”.