Friends and former colleagues of murdered law lecturer Edgar Graham have expressed concern that a Sinn Fein election candidate – and fellow legal academic – has declined to condemn his murder as a crime.
Mr Graham, who was an Ulster Unionist member of the NI Assembly, had just finished teaching at Queen’s University in December 1983 when two gunmen shot him several times in the back of the head.
The Sinn Fein Lagan Valley election candidate for next month’s assembly election is also a law lecturer at Queen’s, but has been unwilling to state whether he believes the IRA killing of Mr Graham was acceptable or could be justified in any way.
Dr Peter Doran, 55, was asked on Tuesday by the News Letter for his views but has not yet responded.
In an earlier newspaper interview Dr Doran said: “The tragedy of the conflict and all the tragic choices that people made at that time including the life and the family of Edgar Graham, that is a matter of profound sorrow to me, of course”.
The academic was widely criticised for declining the opportunity to expressly condemn the murder of a man for his political activities.
Dermot Nesbitt was talking to his friend Mr Graham when the gunmen struck. He has had to live with the haunting memory ever since and has been saddened at the repeated failure of Sinn Fein politicians to distance themselves from the murder of political opponents.
Mr Nesbitt, who was also an elected unionist representative at the time, was left covered in blood and in shock at the brutal murder.
“I was with Edgar that day and it is one thing that lives with me always,” he told the News Letter yesterday.
I was with Edgar that day and it is one thing that lives with me alwaysDermot Nesbitt
“If he [Doran] feels sorry for that I would hope that Sinn Fein as a party could say sorry. My view is that a dead such as that, and other deaths, were never justifiable. It should never have happened. None of these murders were in any way acceptable.”
TUV leader and QC Jim Allister was also studying law at Queen’s in 1983. Mr Allister described the Sinn Fein candidate’s comments as “disgusting”.
He said: “The most basic and fundamental duty of the law is to protect people’s rights. There is no more basic and fundamental right than the right to life. It is clear to me that Doran has no respect or appreciation for law when he can equivocate in such a fashion about the vile murder of Edgar Graham.”
Mr Allister added: “His comments reveal the reality that Sinn Fein/IRA remain committed to defending and justifying the Provos bloody terrorist campaign and underscore their unfitness for government.”
Fermanagh and Tyrone Conservative Associations chairman Roger Lomas was a close friend and fellow office holder of Mr Graham at the Ulster Young Unionist Council.
Mr Lomas said: “The question I would like to ask [Dr Doran] to his face is ‘was Edgar Graham a legitimate target in a terrorist campaign and, if so, why? I am very disappointed that a man lecturing in the rule of law would/will not condemn those who took his life as an unjustifiable killing.”
In an attempt to justify the murder of Mr Graham, shortly afterwards the IRA released as statement which said Mr Graham and his colleagues had “rejoiced in the assassinations of republicans, whether or not they were IRA volunteers or unarmed political activists”.
In response to Dr Doran’s comments on the killing, solicitor and former co-chairman of NI Conservatives Trevor Ringland challenged both the academic and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill to “make it clear not only that the murder was regrettable, but, more importantly, whether they consider it unjustified”.
In Wednesday’s Morning View column, this paper said that while Dr Doran could yet decide to unequivocally condemn the killing of his fellow law lecturer as a heinous crime, he “stands shamed by his failure to condemn the murder” at this point in time.
• On the 25th anniversary of Edgar Graham’s death in 2008, the News Letter spoke to a number of political figures who knew the gifted young lawyer and unionist representative well.
Former Ulster Unionist leader the late Lord Molyneaux said a promising future lay ahead for the UUP Assemblyman.
“Had Mr Graham not been murdered he would have become the leader of our party, such was his calibre,” Mr Molyneaux said.
DUP MP and former MLA Ian Paisley Jnr, who knew Edgar Graham through visits to Stormont with his father, said Mr Graham “knew there was an active and specific threat on his life”.
Mr Paisley added: “If anything has come out of his death it is that today Northern Ireland is a different place because of people like him.
“When I am giving tours of Stormont I always stop at the plaque to Edgar Graham. On one occasion this woman put her hand on my arm and said to me she was his mother. It just shows you how close it still is.”
Dermot Nesbitt was an accountancy lecturer at Queen’s in 1983 and was talking to Mr Graham outside the university when the killers struck.
The former Ulster Unionist environment minister at Stormont said he could “remember it vividly,” and added: “I can see him now. I don’t talk about it very often.
“Edgar and I were the only two members of staff who were elected as unionist representatives. That day Edgar crossed to my side of the street to talk and he was telling me he was going to see the chairman of the NI committee the next day.
“Then he was shot from behind. I was covered in his blood.”
Jim Allister, who was a TUV MEP in 2008, also knew Mr Graham well as their under-graduate years overlapped, said he could still “vividly recall the shock, sorrow and anger” he felt over the brutal murder at the time.
“To think that the ultimate reward for the party of those who murdered him, and hundreds more of our best citizens, is to rule over us, adds to my revulsion,” Mr Allister said in 2008.