TONY Blair was encouraged to meet Orange Order leaders while prime minister to "positively” influence Protestant voters who had yet to make up their minds about the Good Friday Agreement.

The Orange Order leadership had sought a meeting with Blair in 1998 following the signing of the historic peace agreement, but before the public on both sides of the Irish border had voted in a referendum on the political deal.

Papers reveal that the order had been offered meetings with the then-secretary of state Mo Mowlam and Northern Ireland Office (NIO) ministers, but had held out for a face-to-face meeting with Blair to express their concerns over the agreement.

The Orange Order is a British nationalist and Loyalist organisation who are staunchly opposed to republicanism and Irish nationalism, and considered sectarian by critics.

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Best known for their yearly marches, reaching a climax around July 12, the organisation does not accept non-Protestants as members.

Mowlam’s private secretary wrote to Blair’s private secretary on April 30, 1998, stating that the Grand Orange Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland “continue to press for a meeting with the Prime Minister”.

The letter stated: “The Grand Lodges are hoping for an urgent response.

“John McCrea, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, has contacted the Northern Ireland Office to request a meeting between the Prime Minister and the representatives of the Grand Orange Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland to discuss aspects of the Belfast Agreement.

“This follows an offer by my Secretary of State to meet representatives of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, who had declared publicly that they wanted clarification of elements of the Agreement.

“The local Grand Lodge declined this offer on the grounds that the Agreement raises issues which are of concern to members of the Orange Order throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland; hence this request for a meeting with the Prime Minister.”

The letter said that the Orange Order did not intend to raise the issue of parades in their meeting with Blair.

The letter continued: “Those on the list representing the Grand Lodge of Ireland have been amongst the more active in attempting to persuade the Orange Order to moderate their position on the Agreement (though they have not gone as far as to recommend their members accept it).

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“Their influence was also crucial in arranging the peaceful re-routing of several of last year’s contentious Twelfth of July parades.

“Given the commitment of these individuals to keeping the Orange Order on a moderate course, Dr Mowlam thinks it would be well worth the Prime Minister’s time to meet them.

“A meeting would strengthen their position within the Orange Order, and would represent the Government’s willingness to listen to the concerns of the representatives of grassroots opinion.

“The sooner it could be arranged the better.

“Our latest opinion poll evidence shows that one-third of Protestant voters have yet to make up their minds on the Agreement and a meeting between representatives of the Order and the Prime Minister may also help to influence this group positively.”

The proposed agenda for the meeting is reported as including the role of the Dublin Government, the “undemocratic nature of the Assembly”, “the opportunity for unrepentant terrorists to sit in the Assembly”, decommissioning of terrorist weapons and “the integrity of the RUC”.

Orange Order leaders including Robert Saulters, John McCrea, Denis Watson, and George Patton were expected to attend.

The file also includes a note from Blair’s diary secretary stating that the “Prime Minister will meet the Grand Orange Lodges of England, Scotland and Ireland on Thursday, May 7 after cabinet”.