Gaston backs Stevenson for post

THE COUNTY Antrim Grand Master of the Orange Order has welcomed the appointment of Edward Stevenson as Grand Master describing him as "a good upstanding man".

And the District Master of Bushmills, Tommy McAllister, has also given the new incumbent the thumbs-up.

Joe Gaston told the Times he saw the move as a positive one adding that be believed Mr Stevenson was the right man for the job.

The newly elected grand master pledged to pursue a victims-centred approach as he took up his position at the helm of the loyal institution on Wednesday.

Mr Stevenson was elected unopposed by up to 150 members of the organisation's grand lodge in Co Londonderry.

The Tyrone farmer, 55, who was widely tipped to be chosen by senior brethren, succeeds outgoing grand master Robert Saulters.

Mr Stevenson served four years as deputy to Mr Saulters prior to his promotion.

Speaking minutes after being elected at the Ballykelly meeting, the father-of-three described it as a "great honour and a great privilege" to be elected to the office.

"I think it is the first time anyone from Co Tyrone has been elected to the position, so it is a special honour to be chosen," he said.

Asked what his immediate priorities would be as grand master, the Ardstraw man replied: "To continue the good work of my predecessor in helping to establish confidence within the Protestant/unionist/Orange community, but also I want to promote the cause of innocent victims.

"There are many victims within the Order. We lost over 300 members during the years of the Troubles.

"I will seek meetings with government and ministers and anyone who will be able to help them."

Mr Stevenson takes over at a time when disagreements over a number of controversial parades continue to cause political tensions.

On the parades issue, the new grand master reaffirmed the Order's position regarding its policy of not meeting with members of the recently reformed Parades Commission.

"Because we have changed the grand master does not mean we will change grand lodge policy," he said.

"We are still seeking a more fair and equitable system for parades."

Last year, the Order rejected new proposals agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein on dealing with parade disputes.

Asked if he would revisit the issue, the former Tyrone grand master said: "We will be sitting down in the days and weeks ahead to look at what needs to be changed to make it acceptable."

Commenting on a minority of contentious parades, he added: "I would love to see them sorted and folk within those areas having tolerance and respect for Orangemen, allowing them to walk peacefully and quietly."

Adamant that senior brethren would not be meeting with Sinn Fein representatives under his stewardship, Mr Stevenson said he was "looking forward" to developing relationships with the three main unionist parties and would be seeking meetings with them in the near future.

Stressing the need for new blood in the organisation, Mr Stevenson insisted he would be proactive in encouraging more youth to join the Order.

"We have quite a few younger members and hopefully we'll be able to attract more in the coming years," he said.

"We will try anything that we can to encourage them to participate and get involved. We have youth convenors now in every county and we are looking at conferences and boot camps - we're open to all sorts of ideas."

Also at last Thursday's meeting, the Rev Alistair Smyth was elected as the new deputy grand master.

Mr Smyth, a Limavady Orangeman, is currently a minister at Carryduff Presbyterian Church.

Drew Nelson was re-elected as grand secretary and Bill McKeown was re-appointed as grand treasurer of the Order.

Speaking in the wake of the appointment of Mr Stevenson, Mr Gaston said:

"I'm satisfied enough, I think he will do well. He is a good upstanding man.

"I believe he is the right man for the job and there has been a very good deputy appointed too I would say."

Asked for his views on Mr Stevenson's pledge to support victims, Mr Gaston said:

"I have a long memory.

"I would like clarification on what a victim is. I don't think they can be lumped together, there are different classes of victims.

"Some are victims as they were caught up in it but others are victims by their own deeds. That has always been my view."

Mr Gaston also backed the call for more young people to be encouraged into the Orange Order.

"It's very important for any organisation to encourage young people for the long term," he said.

TUV vice-chair and Orangeman Keith Harbinson said:

"I would like to congratulate Edward Stevenson on his election as Grand Master.

"Many throughout Northern Ireland will welcome his comments on Sinn Fein/IRA, reminding people of the pertinent and wholly justifiable reasons as to why the Orange Order continue to refuse to talk them.

"I would wish Mr Stevenson every success during his time in office and we look forward to working with him and his fellow Grand Lodge Officers in protecting our Unionist principles and way of life."