Orange Order elects new leader

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The Orange Order has elected Co Tyrone farmer Edward Stevenson as its new leader.

He replaces Robert Saulters who held the job of Grand Master for 14 years. Mr Stevenson, who was Deputy Grand Master and County Grand Master of Tyrone, was elected unopposed.

Senior Orange Order members met in Co Derry to select a new team of senior office holders. Mr Stevenson (55) takes over as figurehead at a time when disagreements over the organisation’s more controversial parades continue to cause political tensions in Northern Ireland.

Mr Saulters took the helm in 1996 as the Drumcree dispute came to prominence when residents objected to Orangemen marching through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown, Co Armagh.

The summer months of the late 1990s saw street disturbances and serious violence at a number of parade flashpoints across Northern Ireland.

A relatively small number of parade routes now cause controversy but there remains a high potential for violence. Last July riots raged for several days at Ardoyne in north Belfast in the wake of a march through the area.

Northern Ireland political leaders held negotiations at Hillsborough Castle in January 2010 and the talks carved out a deal to stabilise the power-sharing administration at Stormont.

But the package included proposals on replacing the Parades Commission, which currently adjudicates on parades disputes, but which is boycotted by the Orange Order.

The new framework sought to secure agreements on marches by fostering talks at local level between marchers and nationalist community groups.

But the plan collapsed when it was rejected by the Orange Order, despite the widespread belief that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had negotiated a blueprint that Orangemen would support.

During his tenure, Mr Saulters often proved a controversial figure. He hit the headlines in recent months for comments in an article where he said dissident republican groups were a front for what he called the “Roman Catholic IRA”.

But in 2006 he was among leaders of loyal orders who met the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland for the first time.

The new leader of the Orange Order will face the uphill task of finding a route through the parades impasse. The British government has formed a new Parades Commission to continue the work of the organisation in the absence of an alternative.

PA

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