David Cairns: Roman Catholic priest who became MP for Inverclyde and a rising star of the Labour Party

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David Cairns, Labour Member of Parliament for Inverclyde, has died at the age of 44. He was a rising star in Labour's Westminster ranks and had he lived it would have been inconceivable that he would not have been a leading member of any future Labour Government.

His background was somewhat unusual given that he was a former Roman Catholic priest. This was a subject of some controversy – and indeed the impediment to a person with this background being elected to parliament led to a long overdue change of the law.

As a member of the Redemptorists Order, Cairn's links with them were a very important part of his life.

Father Ronald McAinsh (Provincial of the Order) and the young Cairn's Novice Master described him as "an intelligent, hardworking, committed member of our religious order."

He continued: "It is not without significance that his remains will be received at a Requiem Mass in St Mary's, Clapham on Wednesday evening. This is where he ministered and the eulogy will be given by Father Ed Hone who knew David and his partner Dermot very well. We will also be present at the burial in Greenock next Friday, not least because David remained a close friend of the Redemptorists."

Born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, John David Cairns was educated at Notre Dame High School and then trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and the Franciscan International Centre in Canterbury. Having been ordained as a priest he spent three years in Clapham and was acutely influenced by the evidence of extreme poverty amidst elements of profound prosperity. It confirmed his repugnance of injustice and his commitment to equality of opportunity.

His attempts to be elected to parliament, while ultimately successful, at several points looked forlorn. A backbench attempt by Siobhain McDonagh to introduce a bill in June 1999 – the House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill, failed. As McDonagh's researcher, Cairns was disappointed but remained undaunted.

Tony Blair's government later introduced the House of Commons Removal of Clergy Disqualification Bill and put an end to these restrictions. This change – while vigorously opposed by some – attracted the support of Mike O'Brien (then a Minister), future Speaker John Bercow, Baroness Margaret McDonagh (then general secretary of the Labour Party), and constitutional lawyer Professor Robert Blackburn. At the general election in May 2001, he was therefore able to stand as a Labour candidate for his home constituency and was elected by a wide margin.

He became a director of the Christian Socialist Movement in 1994 and in 1998 was elected a Labour councillor in the London borough of Merton, serving in that post for four years.

He was proud of the fact that when he was elected with a majority of almost 10,000 in Greenock, he became the first person actually born in the town to be its representative in the Commons. He relished his constituency work and was hugely admired for the efficiency, concern and good humour which he applied to his constituency activities. He had a fund of stories about constituency characters and events and it was a delight to hear these recited, often on a bleak winter plane journey on a Thursday evening, among travelling companions heading for Glasgow Airport.

A loyal Blairite and advocate of New Labour, Cairns, like his close friend John Reid, often presented his arguments in the language of old Labour. Indeed, he opined that his communist grandfathers and the destruction of Greenock's shipbuilding industry had a major impact on his political views. His commitment to public sector reform contained an element of pragmatism which very much reflected Blair's own views.

Cairns was appointed PPS to Malcolm Wicks, the Pensions Minister, in 2003, and following the 2005 general election (having been returned for the new and larger Inverclyde constituency), he was appointed an Under-Secretary at the Scotland Office.

Former Secretary of State for Defence Lord Des Browne said: "I was often asked how I could be head of a major department and still be Secretary of State for Scotland. The answer was simple: David Cairns. He was thoroughly competent, an excellent communicator, and always on top of his brief."

He handled the Scottish National Party with subtlety and intelligence and they responded by treating him with respect. A heavyweight politician in Scotland, his standing within the Parliamentary Labour Party was quite apparent and was growing.

In September 2008, to the surprise of many, he became involved in the debate over Gordon Brown's premiership and resigned following widespread speculation that he supported a leadership contest. It was highly unfortunate that a person with an appeal to every section of the party was caught up in the feverish, internal squabbles of the time. However, as a man of principle he said that to remain in government when he no longer had confidence in the Prime Minister would have been "hypocrisy of the highest order".

As a backbencher, he raised matters of great relevance to his constituency and the interests that he pursued. He was twice chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, chair of the All Party Group on HIV and AIDS and a member of the select committee of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. He had a strong interest in international development and gave particular support to SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund). Above all, he never forgot his Greenock origins and this became obvious when he criticised the perception of his home town in Ken Loach's film Sweet Sixteen.

Parliament has lost a gifted, principled and witty personality and we are all the poorer for his passing.

Tom Clarke, MP

David Cairns, priest and politician: born Greenock, Renfrewshire 7 August 1966; director, Christian Socialist Movement, 1994–97; Researcher to Siobhain McDonagh MP, 1997–2001; MP for Inverclyde, 2001-2011; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scotland Office, 2005–07; Northern Ireland Office, 2006–07; Minister of State, Scotland Office, 2007–08; died London 9 May 2011.