GRAEME COUSINS speaks to Stuart Brooker, the former Co Fermanagh Grand Master who has been given a civic reception
A senior Orangeman in Co Fermanagh has been given a civic reception after his trailblazing attitude which has brought about such events as the Orange Order hosting an Easter Rising discussion.
Stuart Brooker, who recently finished his term as county grand master for Fermanagh, has been a member of the Orange Institution since 1975 and believes the organisation is more relevant now than ever.
On Thursday night past, the 60-year-old was given a civic reception in Enniskillen Town Hall to mark significant achievements during his tenure, and in particular to acknowledge the work that has been carried out in conjunction with the council.
The event had been organised by the chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Howard Thornton.
Stuart said: “Howard did say to me – not exactly that he’d been watching me – but that he’d been taking note of things we were doing over the years which he found interesting. He’d been at a couple of events we ran, especially through our churches group.
“It is very nice, a big honour, but sometimes you think, gosh did I really do anything that special.”
One of the key partnerships forged during Stuart’s tenure as county grand master was the establishment of a churches group which was representative of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church.
A unique event which brought Stuart to attention both inside and outside the Orange Order was the curation of an event to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising.
He said: “We had a number of events to coincide with the decade of centenaries. We started out in 2012 with the Ulster Covenant. In 2014 we marked the outbreak of World War One.
“Then in 2016 we had two. That’s where it posed some sensitivities for us – there were two centenaries in 2016, one that we would sit very easy with – the Battle of the Somme – and another that we would not sit so very easy with – the Easter Rising.
“After giving it some thought we decided that we needed to do both of these.”
The Orange Order’s Easter Rising discussion took place in the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen. It was chaired by Alex Kane, with guest speakers being Brian Feeney, a political columnist with the Irish News, and Irish politician Senator Michael McDowell.
Stuart said: “The Easter Rising event had almost 200 at it, maybe people were intrigued a little bit by the fact that the Orange Order and Protestant churches were running an event on the Easter Rising.
“After the talks, we had questions and answers, and a debate. People who attended came from right across the community, some really very interesting people turned up.”
Asked if he believed the Orange Order needed to host more cross-community events to explore topics which might not sit easily with the organisation, he said: “I think so. Any of the events we’ve been involved in, we’ve never been asked to take away from who we are or what we are, but that’s not to say we can’t take part in a discussion or debate.”
Another major initiative for the Orange Order in Fermanagh was an audit which was carried out to the seek the views of both its own members and the general public on the Orange Institution.
He said: “When we launched the audit we came to see the secretary of state Theresa Villiers and presented her with a copy. We also met the then foreign minister Charlie Flanagan. That very much took the audit onto a bigger stage.”
Stuart was also part of team who helped to generate £100,000 in charity donations over five years.
Having finished his tenure as county grand master Stuart hoped the forward-thinking approach could go on: “I like to think the work we’ve been doing can continue. The wider officer team have been involved, it wasn’t all down to me. We are expanding on the audit work, some of the districts around the borders of Co Tyrone are getting involved with it now. I’d like to see that growing.
“I think community relations are in a good place in Fermanagh which have allowed us to do some of the initiatives we’ve done. Even in bad times community relations in Fermanagh have remained quite good.
“It certainly hasn’t been easy though. Yes, folk in Fermanagh have been very open and receptive but at the same time you have to work at it.”
While he steps down from his senior position in Co Fermanagh Stuart remains a member of the Orange Institution’s senior management team and one of two assistants to Orange Order Grand Master Edward Stevenson.
He said: “Orange is a family tradition. My father was an Orangeman, my grandfather was an Orangeman. There are wide family connections, that tends to be the way.
“The Orange Order is something I’ve always been very passionate about. I just find it a fantastic fraternal organisation.
“It’s full of some of the most wonderful people worldwide. It gives me a real sense of belonging. I think it’s something that’s really worthwhile belonging to.
“It is becoming more and more so a very relevant organisation. I can see changes from when I joined to where we are now. Look at the magnificent headquarters we have (Schomberg House) and the staff doing all sorts of jobs.
“I can see the Orange Institution continuing to move forward under its current leadership and becoming even more relevant and very much part of the community that we belong to.
“I would encourage the sort of work that we’ve been doing in Fermanagh to happen right across the Province. I would be very keen to be part of it if that opportunity arose to roll it out Provincewide.”
The Twelfth in Co Fermanagh is known as a family occasion and has often been used to showcase to visiting dignitaries what Orangeism is all about.
Stuart said: “We always try to have someone at the Twelfth from an outside perspective, particularly cross-border. We’ve invited civic leaders from the border areas, another year we had civic leaders from the Sligo area and a couple of historical visits.
“In 2016 we had the NI select committee at Maguiresbridge. That was very significant. It included a group of cross-party MPs from Labour, Conservatives – the likes of Steve Pound and Kate Hoey.
“We also welcomed Leo Varadkar – he was then the tourism minister – in 2012. It was his first interaction with Orangeism.
“We had a flagship Twelfth that year – it was attended by Tourism Ireland, Tourism NI, the first minister Peter Robinson, and Arlene Foster, who was then the tourism minister for Northern Ireland.
“It maybe laid the groundwork for Leo Varadkar’s visit here last year to Schomberg House. He recognised me from our last meeting when he came in.”
In 2017, the Twelfth in Enniskillen went out of its way to accommodate the BBC: “They asked could they film in Fermanagh. It involved moving the start forward by two hours.
“We would normally start at 12.30am. We had to be in position before 11am so we had to effectively start at 10.30am. The county really threw their weight behind it.
“We get a number of southern counties coming to us so they had a particularly early start for them. It really portrayed to me what Orangeism is all about. It was a great family day.”
The News Letter understands that in other areas Orangemen have not agreed to move parades to accommodate BBC NI’s schedule.
On the Twelfth in Fermanagh he said: “At the Twelfth we only ever focus on the religious aspect. We would see the border counties as very much part of the Twelfth now.
“We’re about building good relations between lodges on either side of the Irish border. We march together as the Grand Orange of Ireland, not of Northern Ireland.”
Stuart comes from a family with a proud military tradition as well as an Orange lineage.
He said: “There’s no secret in the fact I served in the forces. I was in the UDR and Royal Irish Regiment for over 30 years as a part-time soldier and officer.
“My father came from Sussex. He found himself over here in 1940 as a sergeant and instructor at Ely Lodge where they were training soldiers for D-Day.
“He met my mother when he was here and the rest is history. They went back to England for a while after the war then came back here in the early 50s.
“My father also served in the UDR for a while. I had an uncle lost in the war in the RAF, he has no known grave.”
Stuart, who finished his miltary service as a company commander, said: “I would be a great believer that you never should set yourself above anybody. Just because I had a higher rank it didn’t make me any better than any of the rest of the guys.
“You served with farming folk to professionals to everyone in between. Some of them could have easily taken on a higher rank but didn’t want to.”
Asked if he ever came under threat, he said: “I’m not aware I was under any specific threat but you were constantly under threat, particularly as a part-time solider. My wife served for a while as well around the time we got maried and before the kids came along.
“Part of your daily routine was checking under your car in the morning.”
Stuart and his wife Caroline have three children, with two of them continuing the family’s military record.
Nicola, who is 33, works for Coca Cola, Melanie, 32, served 14 years in the Army, touring Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo, while Jonathan, 29, also a member of the Orange Order, serves in the Royal Navy where he is currently in the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth doing his officer training.
Outside of his life in the Orange Order, Stuart is a member of Brookeborough Flute Band and is very involved with his church – Devonish Parish Church.
A former salesman, Stuart now runs a grave maintenance business, which does some work for the Commonweath Graves Commission.