DUP politician Christopher Stalford has died suddenly at the age of 39, the party has said.
The South Belfast Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), a married father-of-four, died this weekend, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said.
Mr Stalford was a rising star in Northern Ireland politics and was often sent out to talk to the media on behalf of the party.
Sir Jeffrey said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of Christopher’s sudden death. He was not just an elected representative or a colleague, he was a friend.
“On behalf of the party, I express my sympathies to (wife) 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.
“Christopher 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.”
Earlier this year, Mr Stalford said he quit Twitter because it was “awful” and the constant abuse and hatred was unhealthy.
He was one of the first DUP MLAs to publicly declare his support for Edwin Poot’s leadership bid last year, despite being a close ally of former leader Arlene Foster, who was forced out of the top job.
Ms Foster said she was “struggling to process” Mr Stalford’s death as she sent her thoughts and prayers to his family, adding that she would remember him as “happy and confident”.
I have been really struggling to process the news of Christopher’s death, but my first thoughts and my prayers are with Laura and his beloved and adored children. This is how I will remember him, happy and confident after the 2016 election. Matthew 5v4. pic.twitter.com/nVbz02wor5
— Arlene Foster #ProudofNI. (@ArleneFosterUK) February 20, 2022
Politicians of all stripes have paid tribute to Mr Stalford, with many noting his good humour and ability to put differences aside.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said his death was “desperately sad”, adding: “On behalf of the Sinn Fein Assembly team I extend our condolences and I express my sincere sympathy to his wife Laura and their four children who are foremost in our thoughts this afternoon.”
DUP chairman Lord Morrow said he had known Mr Stalford since he was a child and the party is “shocked and saddened by his death but most of all we are heartbroken for Laura, their four little children and Christopher’s wider family”.
The SDLP postponed its spring conference, due to take place on Sunday, as a mark of respect, with leader Colum Eastwood saying he had known Mr Stalford for more than 20 years and his death “has come as such a shock”.
He said there was not “a single political issue” the pair agreed on and they could have a “storming argument in the Assembly with terse words and raised voices, but as soon as you left he would always have a wry smile and a laugh”.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said they had “differing political views” but “never traded an angry word” as he praised him for ensuring the “smooth running” of business in the Assembly in his role as principle deputy speaker, “which he did expertly and with good humour”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis sent his condolences to Mr Stalford’s family and friends, saying the DUP politician was “passionate about crucial issues” affecting Northern Irish people “and was dedicated to building a better Northern Ireland for everyone”.
My sincere condolences to Christopher Stalford’s family and friends on this very sad news. As MLA and Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher was passionate about crucial issues that affected people across NI and was dedicated to building a better Northern Ireland for everyone. https://t.co/dR9h5VPqno
— Brandon Lewis (@BrandonLewis) February 20, 2022
Mr Stalford was a regular political media contributor from his teenage years and was involved with the DUP since his early 20s.
He was elected to Stormont for the first time in 2016, then again in 2017 and became the Assembly’s principle deputy speaker in 2020.
Married to former dental nurse Laura, the couple have four children, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail, who was born in 2018.