Conservative politician Sir Iain Duncan Smith has landed himself in hot water with British Turks after it emerged he supported the introduction of a new bill calling for the First World War massacres of Armenians in Anatolia to be recognised as a “genocide”.
Ayşe Osman, head of the UK’s Turkish Cypriot umbrella body CTCA, has said the move “will cost Sir Iain significant support in his constituency” in North East London, which is home to a large Turkish community.
The former Conservative party leader barely held on to his Chingford and Woodford Green seat at the last General Election, with his majority slashed to twelve hundred votes.
Sir Iain, who is already under political pressure over a possible conflict of interest over his second job at a hand sanitizer firm, embroiled himself in the spat with the Turkish community by joining ten other cross-party Members of Parliament to support their backbench colleague Tim Loughton’s efforts to introduce a bill on the ‘Recognition of the Armenian Genocide”. The backing of the eleven MPs on Tuesday meant the motion was passed and the bill is able to proceed to a second reading on the Commons, scheduled for early next year.
As news of Sir Iain’s support emerged on Wednesday morning, there was an immediate backlash from his Turkish constituents and others from the community who attended a fundraising dinner for him at a Turkish restaurant in Chingford last week.
One British Turk who attended the dinner at Breeze Restaurant last Thursday, 4 November, but who asked not to be named, told T-VINE the news was “a slap in the face”, and that if Sir Iain “is so bothered about recognising genocide, why has he not recognised the genocide against Turkish Cypriots?”
Community activist Sonya Karafistan also voiced her disappointment at the Chingford and Woodford Green MP’s failure to be even-handed on the mass killings in Anatolia a century ago.
Pointing to the scale of death among Ottomans, Ms. Karafistan said: “The loss of life on all sides during the First World War and Turkish War of Independence is deeply upsetting. It’s often forgotten, but some 600,000 Ottoman Turks also lost their lives during this regrettable period. In fact, more Ottoman citizens died during the First World War than any other.
“Seeing Sir Iain’s name on the Armenian genocide bill on Wednesday morning came as a huge shock. Others in the community are similarly upset, expressing a real sense of betrayal and disappointment with someone British Turks consider to be a friend.”
Sir Iain’s Chingford and Woodford Green constituency is home to more than five thousand voters of Turkish origin. The veteran politician’s public pledge to support direct flights to North Cyprus, which remains internationally isolated, was a vote winner with them at the last General Election in December 2019, helping Sir Iain to pip his Labour rival Faiza Shaheen to the post by just 1,262 votes.
Anti-Turkish bias in new genocide bill
However, the ‘Armenian Genocide’ issue is a red line for Turks, who accept Armenians suffered enormously through mass killings, death marches and other indescribable crimes against humanity, but reject the selective and often inaccurate portrayal of the facts of this tragic era in Turkish history, when so many people of all ethnic backgrounds lost their lives due to conflict, often in the most barbaric fashion.
The bias Turks complain about was clearly evident in the one-sided information that Tim Loughton, the MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, chose to present in his motion to Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.
Mr Loughton, who started by declaring an interest in the issue as chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Armenia, told the Commons:
“The Armenian genocide was the systematic and systemic mass murder of between 1 million and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman empire, primarily in the years of the first world war between 1915 and 1916 and extending as far as 1923, though large-scale massacres at the hands of the Ottomans go back to the 1890s and 1909. Following the Ottoman invasion of Russian and Persian territory during world war one, and to deter Armenian independence, Ottoman paramilitaries massacred local Armenians and plans were formulated for mass deportation.”
The Sussex MP spoke at length about why he believes the events in Anatolia (now modern day Turkey) before and immediately after the First World War constitute a “genocide”. Mr Loughton included a controversial comment attributed to Hitler, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”, whose veracity is debated by scholars.
The MP’s pro-Armenian, anti-Turkish bias emerged in his talk, when he falsely claimed that, “the recent invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan, which has forced 90,000 Armenians to flee their homes due to the threat of ethnic cleansing, serves as a warning that Armenians remain vulnerable today.”
The Karabakh region is historically part of Azerbaijan, and recognised as such in international law and in multiple United Nations resolutions. Armenia’s illegal occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory in the 1990s displaced a tenth of all Azerbaijanis, which today total some 1 million people. Many are planning to return to their former homes after Karabakh was liberated from Armenian occupation a year ago after a 44-day war provoked by Armenia.
Mr Loughton has worked closely with Sir Iain, who has championed the need to recognise the systematic oppression of China’s Uyghur Turkish community as a genocide. As his statement below shows, the former Conservative leader merely wanted to offer support in return to Mr Loughton on his genocide issue, yet Sir Iain failed to factor in the strong feelings in the Turkish community.
Turkish Airlines seeks to distance itself from Sir Iain’s fundraising dinner, as CTCA head tells Sir Iain to consult Turks too
Ayşe Osman, the chair of the Council of Turkish Cypriot Associations UK (CTCA) who was also present at Thursday’s dinner at Breeze, told T-VINE:
“I am really dismayed to see Sir Iain put his name to such a biased bill. What Tim Loughton stated in presenting this Genocide Bill is wholly unrepresentative of the historical facts surrounding this period.
“We understand that as an MP, Sir Iain will work with many communities on diverse issues, but this is a very sensitive topic for Turks. No one is denying Armenians suffered during the First World War, but hundreds of thousands of Turks were also killed, so any reference to these events must be factually balanced,” she continued, before adding, “The genocide issue should be left to historians to decide, not politicians.”
When asked whether Sir Iain backing the Armenian genocide would impact his support from the British Turkish community, Ms Osman said it would.
“I believe this [Armenian recognition motion] will cost Sir Iain significant support in his constituency. I urge him to withdraw his support for this bill and to reflect more carefully on these types of issues. He is surrounded by British Turks – next time he should ask us for our views too!”
Sir Iain’s support will also be a huge embarrassment to Turkish businesses who have contributed to his campaign funds. His recent fundraising dinner at Breeze restaurant on 4 November, where Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was the keynote speaker, was sponsored by Cyprus Paradise, the largest tour operator to North Cyprus, and Turkish Airlines. In addition, around a fifth of the 135 guests attending the dinner, where tickets were £70 a head, were of Turkish or Turkish Cypriot origin. Among the raffle prizes held on the night was a holiday to North Cyprus.
A spokesperson for the airline, which is part owned by the Turkish state, told T-VINE they would never be associated with anything promoting ‘Armenian Genocide’: “It is out of the question for us to support such a thing,” while trying to distance themselves from the event:
“We did not sponsor the relevant programme [for the Iain Duncan Smith fundraising dinner where Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with the guest speaker], we attended upon the invitation of a tour operator as it was the sponsor.”
Sir Iain statement on Armenian bill backing also reiterates support for direct flights to North Cyprus
Sir Iain came under pressure to respond to the crisis as local Conservative councillors of Turkish origin were bombarded with calls and messages from angry members of the Turkish community demanding answers on how the MP could lend his support to such an issue.
On Wednesday evening, he sent this statement to T-VINE:
“I wanted to explain why I added my name to the 10 Minute Rule Bill put forward by Tim Loughton. I supported Tim as we had worked together closely on issues related to China and we were both sanctioned by the People’s Republic of China for our work calling out their abuse of human rights and what amounts to genocide on the Muslim Uyghur people. As you may know I have spoken out on their case.
“It is important to note that Ten-Minute Rule Bills do not proceed any further or become law, but they are a way of debating an issue and speaking about it in the Chamber. These mechanisms in Parliament are quite archaic. I am sorry if this was interpreted in any other way. I hope this provides some clarity for you. I continue to support the rights of my constituents and their families in Northern Cyprus and continue to campaign for access to direct flights to Northern Cyprus”.
What is a 10 Minute Rule Bill?
Ten Minute Rule Bills are a type of Private Members’ Bill that are introduced in the House of Commons under Standing Order No 23. This allows a backbench MP to make his or her case for a new Bill in a speech lasting up to ten minutes.
An opposing speech may also be made before the House decides whether or not the Bill should be introduced. If the MP is successful the Bill is taken to have had its first reading.
Tim Loughton introduced his Armenian Genocide Bill, which was unopposed, As it received the backing of eleven other MPs, it was able to proceed after its First Reading in the House of Commons. It is scheduled for a Second Reading on Friday 18 March 2022.
The 11 MPs who backed Tim Loughton’s Armenian Genocide Bill
The 11 MPs who backed the introduction of the Armenian Genocide Bill are from five different parties: the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), and the Scottish National party (SNP).
The names of the MPs who backed the bill are: Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green), John Spellar (Labour, Warley), Chris Law (SNP, Dundee West), Christine Jardine (Lib Dems, Edinburgh West), James Gray (Conservative, North Wiltshire), Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford), Andrew Rosindell (Conservative, Romford), Dr Rupa Huq (Labour, Ealing Central and Acton), Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dems, Bath), Alan Brown (SNP, Kilmarnock and Loudoun) and Chris Stephens (SNP, Glasgow South West).
The full text of Tim Loughton’s Armenian Genocide Bill can be read here.
Official Parliamentary cropped portrait of Sir Iain Duncan Smith, 2020. Photo © Richard Townsend, CC By 3.0