David Cairns

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David Cairns

David Cairns (August 7, 1966 - May 9, 2011) was the Labour MP for Inverclyde from 2001 - 2011 and twice chair of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).

He died at the age of 44 from acute pancreatitis and was survived by his partner Dermot Kehoe of BICOM (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre).

An obituary in the Daily Telegraph noted he 'was not a knee-jerk Left-winger. He supported Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq, favoured identity cards and backed a successor to Trident — a stance that led the Scottish National Party to demonstrate outside his constituency office.'[1]

Meanwhile, Conservative blogger Tim Montgomerie characterised him as 'a Blairite, an Atlanticist and a friend of Israel'.[2]

Early life

Cairns attended Notre Dame High School, a Catholic school in Greenock and the Gregorian University, Rome. Between 1991 and 1994 he was a Catholic Priest.[3]

Having left the priesthood and moved into politics, he had to wait until an archaic law banning current or former Catholic priests from entering parliament had been repealed before he could become an MP.[4] According to one journalist, this gave him 'the rare distinction of being the only current MP on whose behalf a law has been changed', about which he was quoted as being 'very grateful'.[5]

Political career

  • Director, Christian Socialist Movement (1994-7)
  • Research assistant, Siobhain McDonagh MP (1997-2001)
  • Labour MP for Inverclyde (2001 - 2011)
  • Member of the joint committee on consolidation of bills (Jan 2001 - May 2005)
  • PPS to Malcolm Wicks, minister of state at the department for work and pensions (Jun 2003 - May 2005)
  • Parliamentary under secretary of state, Scotland (May 2006 - Jun 2007)
  • Minister of state, Scotland Office (Jun 2007 - Sep 2008)[3]
  • Chair of Labour Friends of Israel twice (2004-5; Sept 2010-May 2011)

Support for Iraq war

Cairns strongly supported the the decision to invade Iraq and later voted strongly against an inquiry into the war.[6]

Resignation over Labour leadership

In September 2008 Cairns resigned rather than declare support for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, because he believed the Labour Party needed to hold a leadership debate. This followed the sacking of party whip Siobhain McDonagh MP for whom has worked as a researcher and reportedly remained close to. She had made the first attempt to have the law banning Catholic priests repealed on his behalf[7][8]

Meetings with arms companies

Cairns attended a reception hosted by arms company British Aerospace Eigineering (BAE Systems) in June 2007[9] and he reports meeting with company representatives in October 2001[10] and March 2008[11], on the former occasion to discuss job losses after the firm announced it was cutting workers from its Govan and Scotstoun shipyards which affected his constituency. In October 2007 he also recorded in his diary a meeting with the 'technology company' Finmeccanica[12], the world's eighth biggest arms company.[13]

America In The World

Along with Tory MP John Hayes, Cairns was a parliamentary chairman of a pro-American organisation called the London Centre for the Study of Anti-Americanism, also known as America in the World (AITW), which was established in October 2008. It was founded and directed by Conservative Party activist Tim Montgomerie and David Cameron attended its official launch.

The stated aim of the organisation was to combat anti-Americanism which it characterised as a problem that had 'become uglier and less reasonable in recent years'[14] and it asked people to sign up to its declaration against anti-Americanism which stated: 'Ours is a better world because of America. The world is safer because of the American soldier. The world is wealthier because of American enterprise. The world is healthier because of American technology. No nation is perfect, but imagine the world without America. I reject anti-Americanism. I declare myself a friend of the United States of America'.[15]

Labour Friends of Israel

Pilgrimage to Israel

An article in Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes Cairns as saying - during an LFI trip in 2004 - that his views had 'changed 180 degrees' in 1992 after he led a pilgrimage of his parish members to Israel, a visit which reportedly turned him from what he called a 'glib and prejudiced' critic of Israel into a vocal and committed supporter.[16]

Meeting with Israeli ambassador

Under 'My Diary' on David Cairn's website, an entry for December 2007 retrieved via the WebArchive, records that he met 'the Israeli and American Ambassadors'.[17] At the time, Cairns was the Minister of State at the Scotland Office, while the Israeli ambassador was Ron Prosor having been appointed to the role in November 2007.[18]

Funded trips to Israel

The UK Government's Register of Interests lists Cairns as reporting the following trips:

  • On 30 June - 4 July 2003 'to Israel and Palestinian Authority to meet members of the Israeli Government and Palestinian Authority and others. Travel and accommodation paid by Labour Friends of Israel and Israeli Foreign Ministry. (Registered 21 July 2003)[19].
  • On 17 - 22 October 2004, he travelled 'to Israel and the Palestinian Territories with Labour Friends of Israel to meet members of the Israeli Government, Parliament and the military; the Palestinian Authority and grassroots organisations promoting Arab-Israeli co-operation. Travel and accommodation paid for by the Labour Friends of Israel. Part accommodation paid for by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Registered 28 October 2004)'[20]
  • On 13-18 September 2009 he travelled to the region again. He described the destination as 'Israel and Palestine', and under 'purpose of visit', recorded: 'I met with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, community representatives, and visited health and social welfare programmes.' The donor was Labour Friends of Israel, registered address 'BM LFI, London WC1N 3XX', and the estimated value of the trip was £1,528 (Registered 25 September 2009).[21]

During the 2004 trip, which he led, Cairns told Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

I have no fear of taking [the MPs] to Ramallah and meeting with [senior Palestinians] because I think Israel's case is just and right.

He reportedly claimed to be especially keen to bring politicians with anti-Israel views to the region to see the situation on the ground for themselves:

We don't attempt to preach. We let them come to their own conclusions. They are usually much more favorable [towards Israel] than if they had never visited.[22]

Friends in the Friends of Israel

In a 2010 interview, Cairns described himself as 'mates' with fellow Scottish Labour MPs Eric Joyce and Tom Harris, who are also both members of Labour Friends of Israel.[23] [24][25]

According to another LFI member Chris Bryant MP, the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband reminisced, after Cairns' death, about playing word games with him during a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Israel along with other LFI members Meg Munn MP, James Purnell MP, David Mencer and Linda Perham.[26]

Speaking up for Israel in the House

Cairns’ record of asking questions about Israel in the House of Commons both oral and written) shows a marked increase in the later years of his career. On 13 January 2009, while Israel’s bombing of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead was ongoing, Cairns asked Bill Rammell, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, in the Commons if he agreed with ‘genuine fears among the Israeli public that behind Hamas is a country [Iran] led by a lunatic and committed to the destruction of the state of Israel?’[27] On 20 October 2009 he tabled a written question about discussions with the United States Administration on ‘the security situation in the West Bank’.[28]

Two days after the Mavi Marmara flotilla was raided by the Israeli military, on 2 June 2010, Cairns asked: ‘Is it not the case that resolution 1860, as well as calling for an end to the blockade, acknowledges that the international community itself has responsibility to ensure that weapons are not smuggled into Gaza?’ and went on to ask how the international community could offer assistance in this regard.[29] A month later, on 6 July 2010, Cairns asked the new Tory Foreign Secretary William Hague if the government remained committed to supporting ‘the work of our [British] armed forces and former police officers on the west bank[sic], as well as, of course, the excellent work of Tony Blair’ which he credited with bringing about ‘steady if unheralded progress on economic and security issues on the west bank’.[30]

In the space of three months, between 14 December 2010 and 15 March 2011, Cairns posed at least 45 questions (oral and written combined) that related to Israel.[31] His questions in this period were, thematically, overwhelmingly concerned with Israel and its security (and once calling on the Foreign Secretary to congratulate Israel for ‘some easement of the blockade on Gaza’)[32]; the Occupied Territories (especially aid to Palestinian security forces in the West Bank)[33]; Gaza (especially the conduct of Hamas and weapons smuggling to Hamas[34] but also the humanitarian situation[35] and the numbers receiving permits to leave for medical treatment)[36]; Lebanon and Hezbollah[37]; Syria[38]; Gilad Shalit[39]; what aid the UK was providing to assist ‘joint business initiatives’ between Israel and Palestinians[40]; whether the EU's Association Agreement could be used to encourage other Middle Eastern and North African countries to improve relations with Israel[41]; whether sanction on Iran were effective[42]; Iran’s human rights record[43]; and Iran’s nuclear capabilities[44]. On the latter, he suggested that WIkileaks revelations about regional fear of Iran provided an opportunity to forge a new consensus around the ‘absolute necessity of taking action against Iran before it develops a nuclear capacity, which would be a threat to us all?’[45] Similarly, in a TheyWorkForYou questionnaire he was previously on record as disagreeing with the statement ‘Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Britain should not support any military action against Iran.’[3]

Making the Progressive Case for Israel

On 15 March 2011, Cairns was scheduled to speak at an event in the House of Commons called 'Making the Progressive Case for Israel', organised jointly by New Labour pressure group Progress, Labour Friends of Israel and the New Israel Fund and advertised as a panel discussion about 'the future for progressive supporters of Israel'. Other speakers included Adam Ognall, chief executive of the New Israel Fund UK, Martin Bright, political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Debbie Coulter, former deputy general secretary of the GMB union and Jennifer Gerber, LFI director, acted as chair.[46]

John Woodcock MP delivered the keynote speech, penned by Cairns, on his behalf.[47] Cairns was unable to attend due to illness and died weeks later. Woodcock was appointed as the new Labour Friends of Israel chair. LFI published a collection of essays under the same name as - and including - Cairns' speech: Making the Progressive Case for Israel. Gerber, in the acknowledgements, says the speech summed up 'a campaign he wanted to launch to ensure that those on the left of British politics can feel comfortable and proud in their support for the state of Israel and in the foreword, John Woodcock writes that Cairns 'had begun planning for a book on this subject'.[48]

In his speech Cairns wrote that 'the failure to make progress in securing an agreement to end the conflict, bolstered by opposition to the very concept of Israel, has resulted in not just reasonable criticism of Israel’s conduct and behaviour, but in increasing attempts to de-legitimise the Israeli state'. He lamented the fact that ‘[i]n the decade of genocide in Darfur, unspeakable war crimes in Sri Lanka, and state-sponsored oppression of gay men and lesbians in a dozen African states, Israel remains the only country that the UN Human Rights Council has specifically condemned' and the fact that 'Israeli speakers are shouted down in university campuses; otherwise left-wing union leaders demand wholesale boycotts of all Israeli produce; Israeli opposition politicians are afraid to come here for fear of arrest; leftish pop stars won’t play concerts in Tel Aviv'.

Cairns states that when it was created Israel was ‘a socialist, egalitarian society, one where Labour would be the natural party of Government' and asserts that '[t]he right of self-determination for the Jewish people was a matter of progressive principle and conscience in 1948 and it should remain so today.'

His speech concludes:

because of Israel’s understandably tough approach to security, including myriad check-points on the West Bank, as well as the Security Barrier, life for Palestinians can be really hard and restrictive, and that offends our sense of fairness. But today I want to propose a new approach for progressives. Currently the dividing line is wrong. People are either categorised as pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. This creates a pressure to support “your” side in a sectarian, loyalist sense.
As I have set out, it’s because Israel embodies progressive values that I am a proud friend of Israel. And yet I have observed a curious phenomenon: whenever I say something supportive of Israel I am almost always challenged to say something critical too. It’s as if I have to buy permission to say something positive. I’m regularly encouraged to be a “critical friend” by which is usually meant more criticism, less friendship.
My point is this: I want to work with all progressives – here, in Israel and the Palestinian territories – to build the confidence and trust that will be required to bring about a lasting agreement. I will be critical of Israel when I need to be. But I call on my friends and colleagues who support the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to cease the language of de-legitimisation; to end the comparisons with South Africa and Nazi Germany; to halt the demands for boycotts of Israeli produce and people; to put an end to the movement to sever academic ties; and to recognise Israel’s strong and continuing adherence to the self-same progressive values that we fight for here at home.[49]

Memorial trees in JNF forest

In Making the Progressive Case for Israel, LFI deirector Jennifer Gerber writes that on a trip to Israel LFI members, accompanied by Cairns' partner Dermot Kehoe, planted trees 'on the hills of Jerusalem' in memory of Cairns.[50] The website of the Jewish National Fund contains further details. The trees were planted by eight MPs, all LFI members and part of a delegation headed by John Woodcock, on 3 October 2011, in Aminadav forest near Jerusalem. Woodcock described Cairns as 'a proud friend of Israel'.[51]

JNF UK chairman Samuel Hayek, told the group:

We are honored to invite you to plant trees at this site, which was dedicated about a year ago when Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the UK, was elected to the House of Lords. Today we can see and appreciate the fruits of KKL-JNF's labours, which include the oxygen the 25,000 trees in this forest grove emit, along with many other ecological benefits. This is just one of the many KKL-JNF projects JNF UK is proud to support. I don't think there are many people who supported Israel like David did. True friends are those who support you in the worst of times, and that was the sort of friend David was. KKL-JNF and JNF UK are honored to have trees planted in his memory.

According to Zochrot, an Israeli NGO, Aminadav was established on land south west of Jerusalem that was once the site of the Palestinian village of Al Walaja, home to up to 2,000 people.[52] Hasan Abu Nimah, a Palestinian who was born in the nearby village of Battir and later became a permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations, has written that Walaja was 'attacked and occupied' by the Israeli army in October 1948 and the village's inhabitants 'scattered in every direction'. He claims to have witnessed the Israeli army systematically 'demolish al-Walajah, house by house' and says it was 'completely destroyed before Israel built the settlement of Aminadav and a park where Israelis picnic on its lands'.[53] Palestinian refugees subsequently established a new village with the same name in the West Bank whose residents are today at 'risk of a second forced displacement', due to Israeli settlement expansion and the construction of the wall, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency[54]

Tributes for support of Israel

At an LFI tribute event, Jennifer Gerber said Cairns had been 'a very supportive and hands on chair', who conceived the idea of the 'making the progressive case for Israel' project to try to 'galvanise support for Israel on the left'.

He was, from the moment he got elected in 2001, an incredibly passionate LFI voice in parliament, and was a friend to Israel in good times and bad.

She added that he 'cared deeply about the detrimental effect the constant demonising of Israel was having on elements of the left and he was always willing to take on people in his own party who were not committed to a two state solution.'[55]

Former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, said:

David was a proud friend of the Israeli people, who stood staunchly by our side, never taking the easy way out. He often told how his colleagues in Parliament would urge him to be a more ‘critical friend’ – their emphasis always more on the ‘critical’ than the ‘friend’. It is a mark of the man that in spite of this, he never saw the need to dilute his support. He was a true friend.[56]

Jon Benjamin from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said:

David was one of those friends in Parliament who choose to see the issues surrounding Israel for what they are: complex, nuanced, but underscored by a deep desire on the part of Israelis to live in peace with their neighbours so that everyone in the region can contribute to the betterment of the world. He will be greatly missed.

Jewish Leadership Council chief executive [Jeremy Newmark]] said:

David was an exemplary public servant and staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish community who never wavered in his support. I was privileged to have worked with him.[57]




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