Hundreds turn out to pay respects to prominent Orangeman Drew Nelson

A prominent Orangeman, described as the heartbeat of the protestant loyal order, will be remembered as a kind-hearted man of principle, mourners at his funeral have been told.

Thursday, 13th October 2016, 5:22 pm
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 5:00 pm
The coffin of high profile Orangeman Drew Nelson makes its way to St John's Church, Hillsborough.

Hundreds of people including leading politicians and public figures turned out to pay their last respects to Drew Nelson, the institution's grand secretary, who died on Monday after a short battle with cancer.

In a five minute personal tribute, Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster appeared to choke back tears as she told those inside and outside the rural Co Down church, the 60-year-old solicitor was much more than the public face of Orangeism.

She said: "There have been many eloquent and heartfelt tributes paid to Drew since his passing on Monday morning.

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Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster (second right) attended the funeral for high profile Orangeman Drew Nelson.

"Leader, ambassador, visionary, champion, an innovator, articulate and a strategist.

"He was all of these things and much, much more.

"He carried all of these accolades so humbly and certainly did not search out glory. That was the mark of Drew.

"He just wanted to get the job done in a respectful and dignified way."

The funeral cortege for high profile Orangeman Drew Nelson makes its way to St John's Church, Hillsborough Co Down

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Mrs Foster's voiced cracked on several occasions as she recalled how the pair had first met while she was a law student at Queen's University Belfast during the turbulent years of the Troubles.

Their last encounter came while he was in hospital just two weeks before his death.

"I counted it as a tremendous privilege to have known Drew and I am so glad that our paths crossed many years ago," the DUP MLA added.

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster (second right) attended the funeral for high profile Orangeman Drew Nelson.

As a high profile spokesman and advocate for the Orange Order, Mr Nelson led numerous delegations in political talks with leaders on both sides of the border.

He was also involved in outreach initiatives that led to meetings with the Irish President, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland and saw him address the Irish Senate.

Praising his efforts during the "difficult years" Mrs Foster said he "epitomised what an Orangeman should be".

She said: "He was a committed unionist who always looked beyond the narrow interests to the greater goal of working, strengthening the union he so cherished.

The funeral cortege for high profile Orangeman Drew Nelson makes its way to St John's Church, Hillsborough Co Down

"Drew was a thinker and when those of who were privileged enough to count his advice he always responded with balanced and considered advice.

"Drew was never given to trite, glib statements. Wise counsel from him was always the order of the day and it was always appreciated."

Ahead of the service, up to 800 Orangemen from lodges across Northern Ireland, England and Scotland took part in a silent, sombre procession through the hinterland towards St John's Church, Upper Kilwarlin near Hillsborough.

The half mile march of men in dark suits and vibrant Orange sashes, some carrying bowler hats and almost all with dark umbrellas, was led by members of Mr Nelson's local lodge, Listullycurran.

It had been organised by a meticulous Mr Nelson who requested a unified body of brethren escort his remains to his final resting place.

Among those who took part were Orange Order Grand Master Edward Stevenson and the institution's high profile chaplain Mervyn Gibson, both of whom helped carry the coffin, adorned with an orange and purple wreath.

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott and a raft of Stormont MLAs including Communities Minister Paul Givan, Education Minister Peter Weir, Edwin Poots, and Danny Kennedy also joined the gathering.

As the procession snaked its way through the narrow country road towards the church, where the Union flag was flown at half mast, the Orangemen removed their collarettes and folded them over their arms.

Such was the turnout, proceedings were relayed through a loud speaker to hundreds of people who had filled a large marquee erected in a nearby field.

Among those at the service were SDLP MLA Alex Attwood and PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin, who oversees the policing of parades as well as Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt.

Rector David Pierce, his friend of 17 years, said: "He was one of Northern Ireland's greatest leaders, not just through the Orange Institution but also in civic and community life.

"He was a leader of men, but also a humble man.

"He didn't seek the limelight but he was the greatest of men."

Mr Nelson served as grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland for 12 years, first elected to the position in December 2004.

He was also a member of the Royal Black Institution.

A former part-time officer with the Ulster Defence Regiment, Mr Nelson previously completed an Army commission course at Sandhurst.

He served as an Ulster Unionist councillor in Banbridge in the mid-1990s, leaving the party in 2004.

"Drew was a principled man who never shirked responsibility," Reverend Pierce said.

But mourners were also given a glimpse of the man behind the headlines - the devoted family man who telephoned his elderly mother every day and adored his two-year-old grand-niece.

Reverend Pierce said: "Yes he was a big and strong Orangeman but he had a tender heart."