Ben Lowry: ‘Edgar Graham’s murder was a bid to instil terror – and by goodness, it did’

Edgar Graham was shot dead at the edge of his south Belfast university campus in 1983

Edgar Graham was shot dead at the edge of his south Belfast university campus in 1983

News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry explains why the controversy over Edgar Graham’s murder, and Dr Peter Doran’s failure to condemn it, is a matter of the utmost public importance, now that Sinn Fein is so keen to project a modern face:

All week our coverage of the controversy over Sinn Fein’s attitude to the 1983 IRA murder of Edgar Graham has been generating important comment – just two weeks before a key election.

Sinn Fein Lagan Valley candidate Dr Peter Doran with the party's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill

Sinn Fein Lagan Valley candidate Dr Peter Doran with the party's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill

Coincidental to this, and unknown to any of us at the News Letter, Anne Graham had been following the debate. She is Edgar’s sister, and had not spoken extensively in public before about the murder of her lawyer and politician brother.

Miss Graham was moved to send us a powerful article about the murder, and her reaction to this new controversy, which we published yesterday. It is on our website.

Dr Peter Doran first expressed his “profound sorrow” at Mr Graham’s death in an interview last weekend.

There were some people who seemed to interpret Dr Doran’s comments as the sign of a breakthrough in Sinn Fein thinking. But for those who remained unconvinced as to the stance of the new Sinn Fein, he did not go anywhere near far enough. Such unease has also been in the spotlight after Michelle O’Neill’s appearance at an IRA commemoration.

Dr Doran had expressed sorrow at the death of Edgar Graham but clearly did not condemn the murder, or hint at condemnation.

This is what he was reported as saying in the Belfast Telegraph: “Anything a party candidate can say is never adequate. The first thing you think of is the dignity of the family. The conflict invaded the lives of many people.

“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 Belfast Telegraph report mentioned Dr Doran’s work in reconciliation. It explained how he was a former member of a monastery founded by a Protestant pastor and how he spent time engaged “in peace and conflict studies at Ulster University”.

But another man who has been involved in reconciliation work spotted this report, Trevor Ringland. Mr Ringland is a moderate pro-Union politician who has played rugby for Ireland.

Mr Ringland wrote a letter to the three daily newspapers in Northern Ireland about Dr Doran’s comments. The paper that first picked up on that letter and published it was us, on Tuesday.

Mr Ringland had further questions for Sinn Fein and its representative, Dr Doran: “Is Sinn Fein changing, or does the cause still come before people, with control retained by the IRA?

“Dr Doran and Michelle O’Neill should make it clear not only that the murder was regrettable, but, more importantly, whether they consider it unjustified.”

Mr Ringland concluded: “It is inadequate for a member of the republican movement to express remorse over Edgar Graham’s murder. A true democrat should be unequivocal in stating that it was unjustified. I await clarification from Dr Doran and his new leader.”

This is a question of the utmost public importance. A law lecturer who joins Sinn Fein and is said to be committed to reconciliation expresses his “profound sorrow”. But does he condemn the murder of a predecessor.

So we put that question to Dr Doran ourselves on Tuesday. It is a simple question.

Did he consider it legitimate for the IRA to shoot dead Edgar Graham, one of the most respected unionist politicians of his generation?

We gave him all day to answer and he directed us to the Sinn Fein press office, who at that stage took the decision not to provide any comment.

Then we got plenty of reaction from other politicians who were appalled at this refusal to condemn.

On Thursday. Dr Doran put out the following statement: “I made it clear when asked that I regard the killing of Edgar Graham as a matter of profound sorrow.

“In fact that was the headline of the initial media report, which dealt at some length with my own personal commitment to reconciliation. Sinn Féin has acknowledged the loss and pain suffered by everyone in our community, in our society as a result of the conflict.

“We have expressed regret that the hurt of the past cannot be undone.

“Sinn Féin is absolutely committed to a process of genuine reconciliation and healing. We want to see all sections of society, including political unionism, engaging fully in that process.”

It is hard to assess tone from written words. We wanted to speak to Dr Doran, but this statement is all we have to work on.

But at the beginning it seems clear that he thinks he has been misunderstood. He is emphasising again his sorrow. Indeed, it was the headline of the initial media report, he points out.

Fine.

But that is not what Trevor Ringland or we are asking. All we are asking is does he condemn the murder of a lawyer and politician?

It is as legitimate a question as asking if a lawyer condemns the vile murder of Pat Finucane, and it is easily answered with a yes or a no. But the answer has not come.

Miss Graham also asked Dr Doran merely to clarify whether or not he condemned the murder. His Thursday statement, which actually came out after she had written her article, changed nothing, she said.

This all matters for a simple reason (see Trevor Ringland’s letter or our editorial on Wednesday, both online).

Dr Doran is standing for election in two weeks. He seems to be projecting himself as a new form of Sinn Féin, as he has every right to do.

But if he is going to project himself as such, and if he works in the very same department as Edgar Graham did, then the voting public has a right to know whether he thinks the IRA went too far that day.

And if he will not, as a representative of the party, publicly and unequivocally condemn the murder of Edgar Graham – and remember we have given Sinn Fein and Dr Doran ample opportunity to do so – then it is reasonable to question if anything has changed in the party at all.

Some republicans on social media this week have reacted furiously to our coverage of this controversy.

They have said that we are encouraging sectarianism and trying to divert attention from RHI (they have obviously not been reading our exhaustive reports on that scandal, led by Sam McBride).

But as this article makes clear, we did not open this controversy. It opened last week when Dr Doran only expressed “profound sorrow”, stopping short of the condemnation that many voters will want to hear to have confidence in the new era of Sinn Fein.

Far from it being sectarian for us to mention the murder of Edgar Graham, in fact that killing was one of the most frightening, calculating and sectarian in the grim history of the Troubles – which is saying something.

It was intended to spook bright young people from going into unionist politics – and by goodness, it did.

As this controversy developed this week, it has become clear to me how significant that murder was at the time (I was 11 and do not remember it, but gradually it came on to my radar over the years). This week alone it has become apparent how many people recall it with clarity and horror.

While of course there are many brave and talented young people who stayed in unionist politics after that murder, many more were scared off entering it.

I even think that some of the governance problems we have today, and the struggle to attract talent, are linked to that unspeakable day.

It was the epitome of terror – as it was intended to be.

We still do not know who in the IRA ordered it, who carried it out, and who at Queen’s (if anyone) assisted it, as is long rumoured.

But one thing we could establish easily. Does Sinn Fein, and its representative Dr Peter Doran, who is standing for Sinn Fein in just two weeks time and works in the same department as Edgar Graham, condemn what happened?
It is a simple question.