Growing influence of unionism’s rising star

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THE influence of the rising unionist politician Edgar Graham was apparent in a cabinet paper exchange in 1982, the year before he was murdered by the IRA at the age of 29.

A letter from Mr Graham to then Secretary of State Jim Prior, dated September 6, 1982, encloses a Young Unionist document containing economic proposals to combat unemployment.

“While we accept that every effort is being made by yourself and your ministers to attract investment to the Province, we note that the impact of new investment on the unemployment figures has been minimal,” Mr Graham writes.

The letter explains that he and two other members of the Young Unionist Council, Derek McAuley and Barry McKay, have established a working group to look into the economic problems.

The trio are said to have spent the summer examining business incentives offered by government agencies, talking to the business community and examining alternative investment strategies.

In a paragraph that has echoes today, in light of the current debate over whether it is correct to prioritise lowering corporation tax in a bid to attract multi-national companies, the letter says: “It is our view that current policies focus too much upon the attraction of outside enterprises of a highly capitalised nature. We felt that more attention needs to be paid to small businesses and that greater efforts must be directed to encouraging the generation of locally based companies.”

The enclosed report concludes that small business development “must be exploited”, and points out that the European Community (the body that would later become the European Union) has major potential for financial and other aid to small firms.

“The major problem, however, is the lack of public awareness of these measures,” the report says.

Mr Graham’s letter is swiftly acknowledged by the government, with a promise that a longer reply will follow.

There is a six-week delay before that fuller reply is posted out, during which (no doubt unknown to the Young Unionist authors) senior civil servants from various departments referred to in the unionist document send paperwork back and forth considering their careful response.

On October 22, 1982, the junior NIO minister Adam Butler sends a five-page reply, beginning with a description of how he has read the Young Unionist report “with great interest”, and commending the authors.

Then, in the second paragraph, Mr Butler begins a detailed defence of the government approach to small businesses.

“The government has recognised the strategic importance of small businesses and the major contribution that they can make towards an upturn in our economic fortunes.”

Mr Butler insists that the government is not overly focussed on attracting big business.

“Our industrial development strategy is based upon three distinct, but related strands – the strengthening of indigenous industry, the promotion of inward investment and the development of small businesses – and it is clear that none in isolation can provide a ready solution to our economic problems,” the minister writes.

Mr Butler challenges the “invidious comparison” between assistance available from the Republic of Ireland’s Industrial Development Authority to businesses there and Northern Ireland’s “very effective” small business agency LEDU.

But Mr Butler ends his respectful letter on a warm note, saying that both he and Mr Prior acknowledge the “effort and work” which has gone into the Young Unionist report.

“It has given food for thought,” he writes, adding that it is helpful to have “constructive ideas”.

A little over 13 months later, on December 7, 1983, Mr Graham, who was considered a future leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was murdered by the Provisional IRA.

Gunmen shot him in the head at close range at Queen’s University, where he lectured in law.

No one was convicted over the shooting, which the IRA said was “a salutary lesson to those loyalists who stand foursquare behind the laws and forces of oppression of the nationalist people”.

Lady Sylvia Hermon, who was then a lawyer, was in the students’ union at the time the murder was announced, and has spoken of her revulsion at hearing students cheering news of the killing, and of how she vowed never to set foot in the union again.