Drew Nelson, a good Orangeman, dies…

Senior Co Down Orangeman and former UUP election candidate Drew Nelson has died at the age of 60. He wasn’t the most public facing Orangeman, which is probably explained by the fact that for most of his life he eschewed big public gestures and worked on smaller but telling reforms.

For a younger generation of Orangemen and Ulster Unionists, he advocated for separation and provided an exemplar of the progressive worker with a taste for slow, patient and incremental reform. He was an early advocate for the use of Orange Halls to meet local community needs.

His robust (but losing) campaign in the 1992 Westminster election saw the introduction of more modern candidate focused techniques. That modernising instinct is something he brought with him into the Orange Institution.

Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning:

No other Orangeman, of perhaps any generation, will ever match his motivation and drive to see the Institution succeed and flourish.

Anyone who knows anything about how the actual Orange tradition operates will know that such sentiments are not given out lightly. And they’re echoed  right across political unionism, not simply his own party.

He played a vital role in highlighting the ongoing attacks against Orange Halls in rural Ulster (ie, on both sides of the border) not by making arguments, but by simple documentation demonstrating the extent and severity of the damage and getting precise data to the press quickly.

As Mike Nesbitt, leader of Mr Nelson’s own party put it this morning:

Sometimes, groups within the unionist community can be their own worst enemy by failing to engage with our opponents. Drew understood that if the Orange Order did not put its case forward, no one else was going to do it for them.

And as Jim Allister has also noted:

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 was also the first head of the Orange to address Seanad Eireann (Speeches here) back in 2012. He will be missed, both by his fellow Orangemen and women and many others who benefited from his rationalism and patience.

I would say ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. But in Drew Nelson’s case, I am tempted to add, that I hope not.

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  • Winston Duff

    Nice tribute Mick, Drew has been an amazing support to small lodges throughout the country, he was always available to give advice and support, very practical minded but understood emotions and stong viewpoints too. He will be grealy missed is a vast understatment.

  • Declan Doyle

    Regardless of one’s views on the OO and I am certainly not a fan, it would appear that his approach included efforts to reform the order. On that front he will certainly be missed. Aside, 60 is a young age to pass away, he clearly had so much more to offer society. God rest his soul.

  • Lex.Butler

    As a contemporary with Drew at QUB, I spent many ‘locker room’ moments with him and never heard any sectarian remarks. I was a bit surprised when years later he emerged as the leader of the OO. Drew was the embodiment of the ‘Honest Ulsterman’, as the many tributes have attested, and it didn’t surprise me that under his leadership those virtues guided the OO. It may have suited many if the OO had become a fossil, but its strain of thought is a key part of the being of Ulster and needs to be recognised. That the OO has changed is down to Drew and one hopes it continues in his direction. Plus 60 is so young … I feel my own mortality this morning.

  • Nevin
  • mickfealty

    Thanks Nevin. One correction to Paddy Burke’s kind remarks in which he says that Mr Nelson was the first Orangeman to address the Seanad. According to Brian Kennaway he wasn’t:

    John Copeland Cole was was a member of Seanad Eireann between 1957 and 1965. His father, John James Cole, was a Cavan TD, elected on five occasions between 1923 and 1943.

    Both father and son were Grand Masters of County Cavan Grand Orange Lodge. Therefore not only have Orange Order members addressed the Oireachtas in the past, they have been members of both Houses in the past.

  • Nevin