Drew Nelson: An innovative leading figure in the Orange Order

Obituary: ‘On a local level, he encouraged lodges to use their halls to meet community needs’

Drew Nelson:  August 3rd, 1956-October 10th, 2016.

Drew Nelson: August 3rd, 1956-October 10th, 2016.


Drew Nelson, who has died after a short illness, was a pragmatic and innovative figure in the Orange Order. As grand secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, he worked to make the Order fit for 21st-century Northern Ireland. He was deeply involved in any modernising initiative the Order took over the last 20 years. He wished to develop the traditional Twelfth of July celebrations into an Orangefest carnival.

He succeeded in having museums of Orange Heritage opened in Belfast and Loughall, Co Armagh. On a local level, he encouraged lodges to use their halls to meet community needs. Overall, Nelson strove to give positive direction to an organisation that has always tended to be diffuse. He pushed out boundaries. He addressed a Seanad sitting in Dublin. He, and other senior members, formally met Cardinal Seán Brady, then head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. He did much quiet work in reducing violence surrounding contentious parades.

When a bandsman urinated outside a Catholic Church in Belfast, he immediately condemned the behaviour as “outrageous and unacceptable”. That was instinctive: strong in principle, he did not wish to deliberately offend others. He had an ability to deal with both broad sweeps of policy, and detail.

As well as having a vision, he would sit up late into the night filling out a grant form for a local community project, so every detail was correct. He was a successful moderniser because he took the Order with him. The members trusted him, and he understood them. Nelson was far from the caricature of a dour Orangeman. He took a glass of wine, and had a wide and varied circle of friends. He was dedicated to Orangeism, and it took up much of his time, but a friend admired how he did this “while remaining quite normal”.

During this summer, he paid his last visit to the Republic, going to Birr, Co Offaly. As well as relaxing, he looked at the hidden history of Orangeism in the area.

John Andrew Nelson was born in 1956, the older of two sons to Stanley Nelson, farmer, and his wife Meta (née McGimpsey), and reared in the townland of Listullycurran near Dromore, Co Down. He was educated at Magherabeg Primary School, then Dromore Central Primary School; Wallace High School in Lisburn and Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied law. After qualifying as a solicitor he set up practice in Dromore in the early 1980s. He also served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, studying at Sandhurst while serving. He served eight years as an Ulster Unionist councillor on Banbridge District Council. In 1992, he stood for – but failed to take – the Westminster seat of South Down, despite running a strong campaign. He withdrew from electoral politics to concentrate on the Order.

His proudest political achievement was ensuring Banbridge Council put townland names on name-signs for roads. He succeeded in moving the Order forward, because he was rooted in Protestant rural Ulster. He understood the membership. The Nelsons had farmed at Listullycurran for generations. He lived all his life on the farm, except for three years spent at Queen’s. His late brother had lived a few fields away.

Nelson was considerate of those round him, and worried his illness would distress close relatives. To facilitate others, he organised the details of his funeral. He accepted death graciously. From his sick bed, he texted: “God has created me for a purpose, and now He is calling me home.”

He is survived by his mother, Meta, sister-in-law Janet, nephews Scott and Stuart and grand-niece Grace. He was predeceased by his brother Brian and their father Stanley.