Sam McBride: Loss of Orange Order’s strategic modernising thinker leaves a chasm

Drew Nelson pictured inside his local Orange hall, Listullycurran near Hillsborough. 'Picture: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker
Drew Nelson pictured inside his local Orange hall, Listullycurran near Hillsborough. 'Picture: Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

When Drew Nelson texted his friends in May to convey the news that he had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and was facing impending death, many of them instantly recognised that the coming loss would be far more than personal.

Although for more than a decade Mr Nelson had as Orange grand secretary been nominally the second in command within the Orange hierarchy, he was recognised internally as the strategic power behind the throne.

During that time, he has been the single most influential Orangeman. Operating within the strictures of an organisation which has an inherent respect for tradition, the Dromore man was either the author of, or a key backer of Orange initiatives which in their own way broke with the past.

In little more than a decade as grand secretary, he pioneered the ‘Orangefest’ initiative to make the Twelfth more welcoming to tourists, championed outreach work to take the Orange story beyond the walls of Orange halls, instigated a more open approach to communicating with the media by hiring a full-time press officer, worked to secure millions of pounds in EU money to build Orange museums and undertook a scientific study of Orangemen’s views in key areas of public policy.

His age and the respect in which he was held within the institution meant that the former UUP councillor was expected to be central to the Order for many years to come.

Now that that assumed continuity has been broken, what had appeared to be a fairly clear trajectory for the Order is far less certain.

As a solicitor, Mr Nelson had the ability to engage in debate and articulate its views. He recognised the value of communication in the modern world, hiring News Letter reporter Bryan Gray as the order’s first full-time press officer. But he did not fall into the trap of assuming that hiring a new spin doctor would in itself turn around the Order’s image.

Although he was as fond as the next Orangeman of having a crack at the media (once claiming that the Province’s broadcasters had a “republican bias”), he recognised that while on some occasions the Order was failing to get its message across, on others its members were the problem.

In an interview with me four years ago, he instantly accepted that the violence which has surrounded some Orange parades was enormously damaging for the institution on two levels, saying: “Some people are discouraged from joining the institution who don’t want to be associated with any type of disruption whatsoever and perhaps other people are encouraged to join who maybe otherwise would find the institution a bit of a tame organisation.”

That understanding meant that although the Orange hierarchy publicly supported their brethren at Twaddell, there was a wariness of getting drawn into another Drumcree and, when a compromise was available, Grand Lodge offered its enthusiastic support.

It also meant that, despite the institution hating its disputes being public, the day after last year’s Twelfth he moved to take on hardliners, using a BBC interview to sharply criticise those responsible for an incident in which a band played music outside a chapel in breach of a Parades Commission ruling, before performing a dance with their drums above their heads a short distance down the street.

Mr Nelson described the band’s actions as “totally unacceptable” and suggested there would be consequences.

He faced open opposition from some traditionalists, with former deputy grand master the Rev Stephen Dickinson organising an early attempt to roll back many of the changes and accusing the Order of having “betrayed its Protestant roots” in an attempt to rebrand as a cultural organisation. Ultimately, the Presbyterian minister admitted defeat and resigned.

During his tenure, the Order embarked on a major study of its membership and Mr Nelson stated it was “vitally important” that the results be made public. The study showed that less than 60% of those surveyed believed that they had the right to march wherever they pleased without restrictions.

Mr Nelson was shrewd, telling the Irish Seanad in 2012 that the Order had been used by many other groups and individuals for their own ends.

Throughout that historic address to the Upper House of the Oireachtas and in keeping with his respectful ambassadorial approach , Mr Nelson consistently referred to the presiding officer by his official Irish name of Cathaoirleach and received prolonged warm applause when he finished speaking.

But although Mr Nelson shifted Orange thinking markedly and projected a more positive image of the institution he loved, there were also instances where he did not appear to display a strategic approach.

Earlier this year, he launched a report which highlighted a decline in the percentage of Protestants in the Civil Service. The report contained comments from an anonymous civil servant complaining about “Catholic colleagues [who] openly talk about GAA, their religion, going to Mass, Ash Wednesday, come into work with Ash on their heads, their children’s confirmation”.

Mr Nelson defended those comments, despite the Orange Order’s central commitment to religious freedom and the likelihood that in coming years – as with the DUP – the Order is likely to find itself on the same side as the Catholic Church in many public debates.

During his tenure, the multi-faceted institution moved more from being a religious or a political organisation to being a cultural and community one, without ever quite resolving that existential question.

Now the Order faces a gaping hole at the top, and perhaps a debate about whether the approach of recent years should be built upon – or rolled back.