Why the chief of the Orange Order had to eat his words

Robert Saulters says his outspoken remarks about Blair were not extraordinary
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The newest addition to the leadership of Ulster Protest- antism spent the weekend fighting a rearguard damage- limitation action against a barrage of criticism of his alleged anti- Catholicism.

Far from enjoying a honeymoon period, Robert Saulters was only minutes into his new office on Wednesday, having been elected Grand Master of the Orange Order, when he found himself enmeshed in controversy focused on the Labour Party leader, Tony Blair.

On 12 July, as the Belfast head of the order, Mr Saulters had delivered a strong attack on the Labour leader, declaring he had "sold his birthright by marrying a Romanist and serving communion in a Roman Catholic church". "He would sell his soul to the devil himself," Mr Saulters said. "He is not loyal to his religion."

On Wednesday, Mr Saulters, fresh from an election he was clearly surprised to win, was ushered blinking into a news conference where, in his words, "the media were set up with their flashing cameras and their lights".

When questioned about his Blair remarks, he stuck by them, repeating his view that the Labour leader was "disloyal".

In the days that followed, Mr Saulters was denounced as bigoted, prejudiced, an utter disgrace, narrow-minded, offens- ive and deeply sectarian.

Yesterday, he beat a judicious retreat from his earlier remarks, conceding in a BBC Radio 4 interview: "Yes, I do regret it now, because this is something that was said six months ago, and this was after a week of mayhem."

On a BBC Radio Ulster interview, he was somewhat less contrite when asked if he regretted his remarks.

"Well, if this is the way the media play the game, yes, it will mean making me more careful [but] what I said I don't think was anything extraordinary."

It has been a short and very sharp lesson in image projection and public relations for the previously low-profile Belfast accountant who, at the age of 61, has been thrust into the loyalist limelight.

Born in a peace-line district of west Belfast, he has been a quiet, stolid, traditional member of the order for 44 years.

A senior Orangeman who has known him for decades said privately: "His election was a surprise. Bobby always was a quiet kind of a cratur.

"He would always have been reasonably hardline, in lodge, but he never usually went out and shouted."

Another Orangeman said: "I think he's a poor choice. He'll be totally out of his depth. That Blair speech was playing to the rank and file, things like that would appeal to their basic instincts.

"It shows how inexperienced he was, saying things like that with the media present."

The significance of Mr Saulters's elevation is that the Orange institution, which has always been extremely important in Northern Ireland political and cultural life, has been placed to centre-stage following last July's confrontation at Drumcree.

The question of controversial marches, and the issue of how Protestant rights to march can be balanced against Catholic rights to be left in peace, is now of vital import.

There are already serious anxieties in official circles that next July could bring a re-run of Drumcree.

Many rank-and-file Orangemen and Unionists look back on the events of last summer as a victory. But many other Protestant elements, particularly in the business sphere, view it as a protest too far, which inflicted great economic and political damage.

As one senior Orangeman said sadly: "It nearly wrecked the country."

It is known that the Orange Order is already making moves aimed at reaching some measure of agreement in order to avoid another full-scale confrontation.

As the Order's new head, Mr Saulters is about to be plunged into the most sensitive and protracted negotiation of his life.