10 May 2011

Life after death: the kindness and wit of David Cairns.

Before I became a dedicated Walthamstower last year, David Cairns, and his partner Dermot, lived in the same ward as me in Islington South. I'd known Dermot since student politics days, and was getting to know David when I was given the fantastic opportunity of going to work alongside him at Labour Friends of Israel. He was LFI's convenor and soon to be Chair. His first stint in the role.

David Cairns MP, 1966-2011

David was determined to break new ground in the debate over Israel/Palestine, washing away any hint of rose tintedness applied to either side, and railing against the lazy thinking and weak assumptions that characterised so much analysis of the conflict. His speech in March this year on the progressive case for Israel (delivered by John Woodcock MP, as David's illness had already struck) was but one example of his principles, eloquence and knowledge. He had understood, on a pilgrimage to the Galilee some years before, about the importance of coming and seeing the region for oneself. He was dedicated to persuading others of such and I was greatly privileged to organise a delegation he led to Israel and the West Bank in September 2004.

He changed British politics, too. His biggest contribution coming arguably before he even entered Parliament. It is extraordinary to think that at the turn of the 21st century, former Catholic priests were still banned from becoming MPs, under early 19th century laws. David had served as a priest for three years from 1991-94 and so the "House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act 2001" was required to allow him to stand in that year's General Election.

In May 2005, he had just picked up the phone to me when I heard his mobile go and he abruptly hung up, explaining that it was Downing Street. A few minutes later he called back, the delight and thrill flooding down the line as he told me he had been appointed as a junior minister in the Scotland Office. He still wanted to know what I'd been calling about and I asked him about some minor point of LFI business. He responded simply "sod that!" and reminded me again of his news. We were gutted to be losing him as our Chair but delighted that such a talent would finally be playing a direct role in government.

By 2007, he was Minister of State, and had Northern Ireland added to his portfolio. But, under Gordon Brown, his time with the red boxes ended during a particular turbulent period of briefings and back-biting. He resigned in September 2008, believing that a serious debate over leadership could no longer be avoided.

A few days later, he was kind enough to attend some unusually tedious corporate event I'd helped organise in the Jubilee Room. He seemed melancholy but at ease, indulging some gallows humour by describing this new phase in his career as "life after death".

Prior to a hospital visit a few weeks ago, I'd last seen him just before Christmas, with Dermot and some mutual friends. A Friday night in Marylebone with odd-coloured drinks, a genuine cockney knees-up, and David regaling us of his tales and impressions of the casts of Doctor Who and Upstairs, Downstairs, whom he had been to meet that day at BBC Cardiff. As funny and articulate and enthusiastic as ever. That Great Constituency In The Sky has got one hell of a new representative.