Stormont Assembly member Christopher Stalford, who has died at the age of 39, was a rising star in Northern Ireland politics whose promising career came to a premature end when he passed away on February 19. His standing was reflected in the range of public figures who expressed their sorrow, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis, Sinn Féin former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and, of course, his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party as well as other branches of unionism.
Stalford was born into a working-class community in Annadale, south Belfast, on January 17, 1983. He was only seven years of age when his father died at the age of 26, reportedly from a bleed on the brain, leaving his mother Karen to care for Christopher and his sister Angela. After attending the Ulidia and Nettlefield primary schools, Christopher went on to Wellington College and later studied politics and history at Queen’s University Belfast.
His interest in politics was more than just academic and, following graduation, he worked two days a week in the office of Northern Ireland Assembly member Peter Weir and three days a week with Jim Allister, at a time when the leader of Traditional Unionist Voice was a Member of the European Parliament for the DUP. Stalford later worked in the DUP press office for six years and subsequently in the party’s policy unit.
In the 2005 local elections, he became the youngest member of Belfast City Council at 22, representing the Laganbank area. When he became high sheriff of Belfast in 2010 at 27, he was the youngest person ever to hold that office. He was selected to chair the Belfast district policing partnership in 2008. Stalford was elected as deputy lord mayor for 2013-14. The Laganbank district electoral area was abolished at the 2014 local elections and he was re-elected for the Balmoral district.
Having run unsuccessfully in the 2007 Assembly election, in 2016 Stalford was one of two DUP candidates who were elected in south Belfast and later, in January 2020, he became principal deputy speaker of the Assembly. He was due to run in this year’s election on May 5.
Stalford was regarded as socially conservative on such issues as abortion and gay rights but was an opponent of the death penalty. He was politically close to former first minister Arlene Foster and, in a cross-community gesture, the pair of them attended the 2018 GAA Ulster senior football final between Donegal and Fermanagh.
In May last year, he made what he described as a “very difficult” personal decision to back Edwin Poots to take over from Foster as party leader. Poots defeated Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 but resigned as leader the following month and Donaldson replaced him.
Stalford and his wife Laura had four children together: Cameron, Abigail, Trinity and Oliver. Donaldson told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “More than anything else the one thing that stood out about Christopher was his love for his family.” Recalling what turned out to be their last conversation, he said: “I spoke to him on Friday evening and while we were talking about politics and the forthcoming election, he was talking about his children and his family, the move to the big school for his eldest.”
Tributes were paid to Christopher Stalford at a special sitting of the Stormont Assembly last Monday. Assembly Speaker and Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey said: “None of us would have ever imagined we would be here today in these circumstances for a member who had so much more to give.”
Wiping away tears, DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley said: “Words cannot adequately describe the sense of pain and loss which is felt on these benches for a man that meant so much to so many of us.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon described Stalford as “challenging, argumentative, ambitious, combative during debates”, but also “kind, quick-witted, fiercely intelligent and very, very funny”.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said they “both believed passionately that education was the route to lift people permanently out of disadvantage” and she added: “Despite the fact that we were opponents, we were also friends.”
Sinn Féin’s leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, wrote on Twitter: “Sitting at home (due to Covid) watching the tributes to Christopher Stalford . . . I am reminded that there is far more that unites us than divides us. Rest in peace, Christopher.”
A minute’s silence was held and the Assembly adjourned for the day.