He was killed because his decency terrified the paramilitaries
Ifirst met Edgar Graham at an Ulster Unionist event in 1977. He was only 23, a year older than me, yet he already looked and sounded like someone who was destined to be a key player in the party.
He wasn’t a shouter or rabble-rouser. He thought before he spoke, and when he spoke it was clear that he had given serious consideration to the issue under discussion.
That in itself made him different, for this, after all, was a difficult, dangerous time, when unionists tended to favour the kneejerk rant over the calculated reflection.
By the time he was shot dead, 35 years ago, aged 29, Edgar was more than a key player; he was already being spoken of as a future leader.
He had been elected chairman of the Young Unionist Council in 1981 and had helped to reform and re-energise it.
He had also been elected honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council (the party’s governing body), affording him enormous input and influence.
In 1982 he won a seat to the ‘new’ Assembly, representing South Belfast, and within a matter of months had earned a reputation for “an impressive command of parliamentary procedure which few could match”.
But by then he had also attracted the unwelcome attention of paramilitaries from both sides, not least for his support of the supergrass trials (he was a barrister and law lecturer), which were wreaking havoc within their ranks.
After an emotionally charged debate in Queen’s Students’ Union, in which he made the case for continuing the trials, a colleague noted: “I felt afraid for him that day and in that environment, but I did not realise then the significance of it.” That colleague is now the MP for North Down.
He also opposed the separation of prisoners in the Maze, causing the UVF to issue a statement: “Does Assemblyman Graham really speak on behalf of the UUP and its elected representatives? They will be judged by their silence.”
At that point, he was carrying a personal protection weapon because police intelligence suggested terrorists on both sides wanted to kill him.
He was unambiguous in his condemnation of paramilitarism — all of it. He viewed them all as criminals who should not be allowed to hide behind ‘political’ justifications for their terrorism.
That’s why the IRA chose to murder him. That’s why they fired a number of bullets into his head at point-blank range as he chatted with a friend, Dermot Nesbitt, on University Avenue.
His murder, said the IRA, “should be a salutary lesson to those loyalists who stand foursquare behind the laws and forces of oppression of the nationalist people”.
Gerry Adams refused to condemn the killing, saying “(I’m) not prepared to join the hypocritical chorus of establishment figures who were vocal only in their condemnation of IRA actions and silent on British actions.”
No one from Sinn Fein or the IRA has ever condemned his murder.
I remember Edgar. Decency and integrity were embedded in his DNA. He was thoughtful and eloquent. In his early 20s he had already provided ample evidence of the fresh thinking that he was keen to bring to unionism, although in some ways he was never a typical unionist. Indeed, he wasn’t even a typical politician.
Had he not been spoken of as a future leader, he might not have been targeted for murder.
Ironically, it was his soft voice and measured tones that seemed to unsettle the IRA more than anything else.
They weren’t comfortable with that manifestation of unionism, with someone who wasn’t ‘your typical unionist.’
Edgar was murdered because the IRA feared him. Feared what he stood for. He deserves to be better remembered by today’s generation.