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A tribute to David Cairns

The death of David Cairns came as a true shock to me, as it did to many. This is primarily because only two months ago I saw him in great spirits: chatting away, laughing and being generally merry as he collected the quiz papers in at the Labour Party Irish Society annual parliamentary reception.

This was the only time I ever met David. I wish I’d known him for longer, but I’m honoured to have been in his presence while he was with us.

I’ve every faith that those who knew him better will be able to write proper obituaries in full appreciation of his numerous qualities. I’ve heard Tom Harris has already written a piece which really does him justice, and spent most of the day trying, and failing, to access this. Now I’ve read it, I can say it’s certainly heartfelt.

I first heard of David when I was volunteering for the Labour party (for the first time, in fact) in the summer of 2008. The party was hardly in a great state at that point – we were 20 points behind the Tories in the opinion polls – and, to make life a bit more difficult, there was a by-election approaching in Glasgow.

On the TV above the desk where I was working, Sky News was on, and the piece was all about Labour’s neglect of the Glasgow East constituency and the surrounding areas. Next up, a figure of high involvement in the Labour campaign to hold on.

This was David Cairns. I can’t remember quite what it was, but there was something about his delivery that may me think he was thoroughly decent and down to earth. He seemed to be just the person to be leading this campaign – he knew, and was proud of what Labour had done for Scotland and for Glasgow, but he was willing to listen to voters as well.

We didn’t win that campaign – but there’s no denying that this was down to the national unpopularity of the Labour party at that time.

The next time I heard of Cairns was later in the year, when he joined Siobhain McDonagh in resigning over Gordon Brown’s leadership. At the time, I was very angry, thinking it was wrong of him and McDonagh – and a dozen or so others – to destabilise the party leadership at the time, when Brown needed to show, in the words he used so much, that he was “getting on with the job”.

I haven’t revised my position on that. I still think he was wrong to do this. But meeting David in March this year, I realised that I was right in my original perception – over the TV – of his decency. As the humble quizmaster of the Irish reception, he had plenty of witty quips, and above all, he had a sense of warmth about him.

Later, he was one of several MPs and peers who invited us to carry on the evening at the Strangers’ Bar – reserved for parliamentarians and their guests (you have to be a member of one house or the other to go to the bar). While two parliamentary colleagues, who will remain nameless, acted somewhat in mean spirit, presumably outraged that there were so many (well, about a dozen in a pretty large space) ordinary people in a room full of the political class, David was welcoming, offering to buy us all drinks, and continued to respect and engage with the lifeblood – in this case, the Irish lifeblood – of the Labour party.

For that, and for his all round decency, I’ll have everlasting respect for David Cairns. What a tragic loss to the Labour party, to faith (as a former Catholic priest) and to society as a whole.

Rest in peace.

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