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.