The DUP’s South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford has died.
In a statement, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was not just an elected representative or a colleague, “he was a friend”.
Mr Stalford (39) passed away over the weekend and is survived by his wife Laura and their four young children.
Passing on his sympathies to Mr Stalford’s family, Sir Jeffrey said: “On behalf of the party, I express my sympathies to Laura and the wider Stalford family on the loss of a husband, father, son and brother.
“I talked at length with Christopher on Friday night. He was passionate about Northern Ireland and wanted the best for his constituents. I was never to know how precious that conversation was to be.
“Most telling of all in that conversation was his pride in Laura and their children. He talked about his eldest child transferring to big school and the discussions that were ongoing in the home.”
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill extended her condolences and expressed her sincere sadness following Mr Stalford’s passing.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who postponed his party’s Spring conference on Sunday as a mark of respect, expressed his shock and said no matter how heated an Assembly debate could become, Mr Stalford “would always have a wry smile and a laugh” when it was over.
UUP leader Doug Beattie added that no matter their differing political views, they never “traded an angry word”.
The TUV’s Jim Allister said he retained “friendship and respect” for the MLA, while Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said they shared a “warm personal friendship”.
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was “struggling to process” Mr Stalford’s death but will remember him as “happy and confident” following his 2016 Assembly election success.
Mr Stalford was first elected into office in 2005 as a Belfast City councillor for the Laganbank area when he was 22 – the youngest person on the council.
In 2014, after Laganbank was abolished, Mr Stalford was re-elected in the Balmoral area and was Deputy Lord Mayor during the 2013/14 term.
Two years later, he was elected as one of two DUP MLAs for South Belfast and became Principal Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2020.
Sir Jeffrey said Mr Stalford was “born to be a public representative”.
“From his teenage years he was a regular contributor to politics both in the print and broadcast media,” he continued.
“He was elected as a Belfast City Councillor in 2005 to represent the Laganbank area and then from 2014 represented the Balmoral area. Christopher was elected the High Sheriff of Belfast in 2010 and Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2013/14.
“In 2016, Christopher was elected to represent Belfast South in the Northern Ireland Assembly and from January 2020 served as the Principal Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“Christopher believed in stretching himself to build a genuinely shared future.
“He was confident in his unionism and his identity and was always prepared to provide leadership to keep Northern Ireland moving in the right direction.
“The Stalford family will be in our prayers as they mourn Christopher’s passing.”
DUP chairman Lord Morrow said he had known Mr Stalford since his childhood and that his family were “faithful members” of the party from its foundation.
“As a party, we are shocked and saddened by his death but most of all we are heartbroken for Laura, their four little children and Christopher’s wider family who will feel this loss most keenly,” stated Lord Morrow.
“We are praying that the God of all comfort will be with the Stalford family at this difficult and sad time as they mourn the sudden and unexpected passing of one who was so dear and precious to them.
“From his earliest days, Christopher was immersed in the politics of Northern Ireland.
“He was a committed unionist and was always destined to be an elected representative because he had a heart for the people, public service and making Northern Ireland better.
“We thank those across the political spectrum for their condolences and thoughtfulness. We ask that Christopher’s family are given privacy and space to grieve.”
Mr Stalford’s funeral details will be made public in due course.