The Orange Institution has praised Drew Nelson as “perhaps its greatest ever advocate” following his death of its Grand Secretary early on Monday morning.
Mr Nelson, 60, passed away after a short illness.
The Grand Lodge of Ireland expressed its “deep sadness and profound regret” at the news.
Grand Master Edward Stevenson, led tributes to the respected Dromore solicitor, who played a leading role within Orangeism since his election to office in 2004.
Mr Stevenson said: “Today, the Orange Institution has lost not only its heartbeat, but perhaps its greatest ever advocate.
“Drew was a towering figure within the Orange fraternity, whose commitment and devotion to the principles of Orangeism are simply unrivalled. No other individual, over the course of the past decade, has done more to champion the cause of the Institution and its membership. His contribution to promoting a tradition he was immensely proud to represent, was truly outstanding.
“Whether it be in the lodge room, the boardroom or the confines of the highest political office, Drew was in his element. His well-informed, articulate and thoughtful viewpoint would always captivate his target audience.
“Whilst never compromising his beliefs as a principled and unashamed unionist, Drew’s pragmatism and strategic vision played a key role in the Institution’s evolution as a major stakeholder in this Province, and its ongoing community outreach. Indeed, his historic address to the Irish Senate in 2012 broke new ground in this regard.”
Mr Stevenson described the symbolic visit of Prince Charles to the birthplace of Orangeism – the Museum of Orange Heritage in Loughall – as Mr Nelson’s greatest legacy.
“Such high-level recognition for the Institution, and other acknowledgements by wider civic society, simply would not have happened without Drew’s visionary leadership.”
He added: “The thoughts and prayers of the entire Institution are with the Nelson family circle at this time.”
Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning highlighted the achievements of the senior Orangeman, describing his former colleague as the “modernising force” of the Institution.
Mr Henning said: “Drew literally was the engine room of the Institution – his enthusiasm knew no bounds. He lived, breathed and loved Orangeism. No other Orangeman, of perhaps any generation, will ever match his motivation and drive to see the Institution succeed and flourish.
“Everything Drew did was thought out, nothing was ever off the cuff. This was very much apparent in his extensive lobbying and interaction with opinion formers, funders and representatives of government.
“Drew played a key role in the derating of Orange halls and was an integral part of the Institution’s ongoing campaign for new parading legislation. He himself was the genesis of the Order’s numerous community development activities, which most recently incorporated the provision of state-of-the-art sporting facilities at Orange properties.”
Mr Henning added: “Drew was also a huge advocate for our younger members, establishing a third-level leadership course, as well as actively supporting the respective Orange societies at our local universities.
“Drew was a trailblazer for Orangeism, the like of which we will never see again.”
Danny Kennedy said he was greatly saddened at the passing of Mr Nelson – a former Ulster Unionist councillor on Banbridge District Council.
“Drew was a significant figure within the Orange Order, serving as Grand Secretary for many years, leading change in the organisation, change that saw its image and reputation improve significantly across the world.”
The UUP MLA added: “I knew Drew primarily through my membership of the Orange Institution, and his commitment to the Orange Order and his desire to improve life in Northern Ireland was obvious.
“His passing is a huge loss to the Orange Order, but it will be felt most acutely by his Mother and the whole Nelson family circle.”