Tributes to David Cairns

The untimely death of the former Labour minister, David Cairns, this week has shown the better face of British politics, in a series of cross-party tributes to a well-liked MP. His close political friend Tom Harris and his Conservative sparring partner Tim Montgomerie have posted tributes online and the SNP's Stewart Hosie has just been adding some graceful words in the Commons. After the slugfest of recent weeks, the genuine grief for a political opponent gives a glimpse of a too-seldom seen side of the political world.

Mr Cairns became a Commons issue before being elected. He was only able to take his place in the Commons after the removal of an antiquated legal ban under which clergy in the Churches of England and Ireland (but not Wales), ministers in the Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic priests, and priests who have been ordained by a bishop were disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons by the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. Mr Cairns, an ex Roman Catholic priest would probably have been covered.

Here is the 1829 wording:

"That no person in Holy Orders in the Church of Rome shall be capable of being elected to serve in Parliament as a member of the House of Commons; and if any such person shall be elected to serve in Parliament as aforesaid such election shall be void…... And if any such person shall, in any of the cases aforesaid, presume to sit or vote as a member of the House of Commons, he shall be subject to the same penalties, forfeitures, and disabilities as are enacted by an Act passed in the forty-first year of the reign of King George the Third, intitled 'An Act to remove doubts respecting the eligibility of persons in Holy Orders to sit in the House of Commons'; and proof of the celebration of any religious service by such person, according to the rites of the Church of Rome, shall be deemed and taken to be prima facie evidence of the fact of such persons being in Holy Orders within the intent and meaning of this Act."

Ouch. In fact the question of whether an ordained priest could become an MP involved nine separate acts of Parliament, dating back to the 16th Century - and the ban was finally removed in 2001 when the Government put through a bill, following an attempt to introduce a Ten Minute Rule bill by the Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, for whom Mr Cairns worked before entering Parliament.