Ceremonies held in memory of slain UUP idealist, who still inspires today

Dermott Nesbitt pictured at the wreath laying ceremony for Edgar Graham in Stormont Buildings on Saturday
Dermott Nesbitt pictured at the wreath laying ceremony for Edgar Graham in Stormont Buildings on Saturday

The legacy of murdered UUP man Edgar Graham lives on in the example he set for today’s young unionists.

That was one of the messages emerging from the commemorations to the slain barrister which were held on Saturday, marking 30 years since he was shot dead by the Provisional IRA on December 7, 1983.

He was aged just 29, but had already developed a reputation as an ambitions intellectual who was destined for great things in the fields of both law and politics.

Two events were held to mark his memory – the first of which began at Stormont at around 10.30am.

A floral wreath was laid beside an inscription to his memory which is carved into the stone of the building, while senior party members offered words of remembrance.

The event was followed by another commemoration at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Aaron Carson, a 20-year-old UUP member from Lurgan, was one of five students who was awarded a bursary in Mr Graham’s name immediately after the Stormont commemoration.

The eponymous grants programme, operated by the party, provides cash to support the studies of some young men and women with UUP connections. These were given out just after the 11am wreath-laying, with Mr Carson receiving £600.

There was a “very solemn mood” at the wreath-laying, he said, with UUP MLAs in attendance along with relatives of Mr Graham.

Mr Carson said he had always heard Mr Graham spoken of in the past, but recently researched more into who he was and what he stood for.

“I heard him mentioned a couple of times but it wasn’t until I heard of the bursary scheme that I wanted to look into it a bit further; (into) the man and why he was killed.

“I wanted to see what all the commotion was about.”

What he learned impressed him.

“It was good to see somebody believed heavily in the peace process and power-sharing a long time before it became popular as a concept in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It shows a great example to somebody like myself – relatively young, getting into politics.

“It shows you can have your own views and opinions – people might not like them, but it’s always better to go ahead with your views and opinions.

“Unfortunately, he was killed for his.”

He added that Mr Graham was “an inspiration in death” and that it demonstrated to him that “if you believe in something strongly enough, you fight your corner”.

As reported on Saturday, right next to Mr Graham at the time of the shooting was friend and party colleague Dermot Nesbitt.

He was “inches” away when the bullets struck as the men stood chatting beside Queen’s.

And at the weekend, Mr Nesbitt attended both the Stormont ceremony and the one at Queen’s.

Paying tribute to his appearance on the day was current party leader Mike Nesbitt, who said: “I was deeply moved by the dignity of Dermot Nesbitt, who was at Edgar’s side 30 years ago at the moment he was murdered.

“Dermot’s bearing and his words demonstrated an ability to rise above bitterness and focus clearly on what still needs to be done.

“I was heartened by the range of people who turned up, which encompassed an aunt and uncle of Edgar’s who travelled from Coleraine to be with us, and also the Young Unionists, who were born after his death but are now recipients of the Edgar Graham Bursary, which keeps alive his name and memory.

“Edgar Graham was denied the opportunity to fulfil his potential, which would almost certainly have seen him lead the Ulster Unionist Party, leaving others, including David Trimble and myself, to bide our time.”

Speaking ahead of the commemoration, Dermot Nesbitt also reflected not only on the “fateful day” itself but on what might have been had the two friends made different choices.

“(Edgar) and I were of the same vintage,” he told the News Letter.

“At that time we were the only unionist elected representatives on the staff at Queen’s. He was an MLA and I was a councillor.”

They had both drafted a letter to be sent to the vice-chancellor, seeking permission to run for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“We both sent our letter, we both got permission to run for the Assembly in 1982,” he said.

However, he was talked out of standing, with someone else from South Down running in his stead.

Meanwhile, Mr Graham pressed ahead with his own successful candidacy. “I was persuaded that my day would come,” said Mr Nesbitt.

“I remained a councillor and he ran as an Assembly member, and I sometimes reflect that he ran, I didn’t run.

“He died. I lived.

“And you just don’t know what events cause what things to happen.”

Mr Nesbitt was also adamant that, although he stood just inches away while his friend’s life was snatched from before his eyes, he was not a victim himself.

“It was one of these very traumatic experiences you live through.

“I would never say I was a victim of the Troubles, because I’m not,” he said.

“I would not for one moment, not for one moment put myself in the position of those who have lost family.

“Not at all. Not even in the same frame.”

However, he said he can, to a certain degree, understand how they feel, adding: “Only to the extent that some traumatic event that may have happened 30 or 40 years ago, you remember it like yesterday.”