New Orange head takes issue with Blair's marriage


THE newly elected Grand Master of the Orange Order of Ireland, Mr Robert Saulters, said it was "disloyal" of the British Labour leader, Mr Tony Blair, to marry a Catholic.

Mr Saulters, a Belfast accountant, who was yesterday unanimously elected as Grand Master to succeed the Rev Martin Smyth MP, also said he favoured continuing the Orange Order's official links with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Mr Saulters is an Orange delegate to the Ulster Unionist Council, the governing body for the UUP. His comments come at a time when the UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, is due to meet Mr Blair in Northern Ireland.

Mr Trimble was unavailable last night for comment on Mr Saulters's views about Mr Blair's inter denominational marriage to Ms Cherie Blair.

Mr Saulters, when asked about comments he made after the Belfast parade on July 12th this year, stated that it would be disloyal for a Protestant to marry a Catholic.

In July, Mr Saulters referred to the "bleak" prospect of a potential new British prime minister married to a "Romanist".

Speaking of the "gutless men in Westminster", Mr Saulters said at the time that Mr Blair had "already sold his birthright by marrying a Romanist and serving Communion in a Roman Catholic church.

"He would sell his soul to the devil himself. He is not loyal to his religion. He is a turncoat. The future looks bleak," said Mr Saulters.

Questioned by reporters last night, Mr Saulters generally did not deviate from his position of July, although he denied calling Mr Blair a turncoat. He believed it was "disloyal" of Mr Blair to have married a Catholic.

"I think if he can turn one way, he can turn in the management of the country," said Mr Saulters.

Asked to whom was Mr Blair being disloyal, Mr Saulters said: "Disloyal to one's self, to one's religion." He did not see any bigotry in such a belief. He was not brought up to be a bigot, he added.

Mr Saulters said last night that if invited he would turn up at the Catholic church in Harryville, Ballymena, to show solidarity with Mass goers. He said he "detested and abhorred" what was happening at Harryville.

Canon Sean Connolly, parish priest in Ballymena, last night responded that Mr Saulters would be welcome were he to turn up at the Church of Our Lady in support of local Catholics.

"I would welcome any support that might fry and influence those people organising these protests," added Canon Connolly. The difficulty with finding a solution was defining who was leading the protests, whether it was loyalist paramilitaries or members of the "Orange bands", said Canon Connolly.

Mr Saulters yesterday defended the stance of Orangemen at Drumcree and said if necessary he would be back at Drumcree next year in support of Orangemen seeking to march down Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

The new Grand Master insisted he would not meet or negotiate with any Sinn Fein "or IRA" members who were spokespeople for residents' groups opposed to Orange marches.

Mr Saulters (61), is a native of Whiterock in west Belfast, now a Catholic area. He now lives in a Protestant area of west Belfast, is married with two sons, neither of whom is a member of the Orange Order.

The SDLP leader, Mr John Hume, congratulated Mr Saulters on his appointment, and hoped he would channel his energies into helping resolve the contentious parades issue.

The Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, also wished Mr Saulters well in his new position. "I hope he has the courage to move the Orange Order away from its current mindset, which seeks domination, towards a new era in which Orangeism will seek equality and an accommodation: with others," he added.

The Pat Finucane Centre in Derry deplored Mr Saulters's comments about Mr Blair, and accused the Orange Order of 1 being "still fixated with the religious wars of the 17th century