21 February 2022

Warm tributes paid across political benches at Stormont to Christopher Stalford

21 February 2022

Warm tributes have been paid from across the political benches at Stormont to DUP politician Christopher Stalford.

Many MLAs spoke of their shock as well as sadness following the sudden death of the 39-year-old father-of-four at the weekend.

DUP MLAs gathered in a circle in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings for a prayer and moment of silence on Monday morning before entering the chamber for special plenary sitting in Mr Stalford’s memory.

DUP MLAs pause for a prayer in the Great Hall at Stormont following the sudden death of Christopher Stalford. (Rebecca Black/PA)

The Assembly sat for tributes to Mr Stalford, followed by a minute’s silence before business was adjourned for the day.

Speaker Alex Maskey opened the tributes, telling MLAs of a “deep sense of sadness across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland”.

“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,” he said.

DUP deputy leader Paula Bradley wiped away tears as she paid tribute to Mr Stalford.

She told the Assembly: “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.

“Nothing meant more to Christopher than his family. The pride and joy he felt for them was evident in every conversation he had.

“No-one will feel the loss of Christopher more than his family and I trust and pray that God will draw near to them at this time of unimaginable heartbreak.”

Christopher Stalford with his mother Karen Stalford and his wife Laura (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill was not in the chamber.

She later tweeted that she was self-isolating at home due to Covid-19.

“Sitting at home (due to covid) watching the tributes to Christopher Stalford. I’m struck by the shared sense of loss across the political spectrum. I am reminded that there is far more that unites us than divides us. Rest in peace Christopher,” Ms O’Neill tweeted.

In her absence, her MLA and ministerial colleague Deirdre Hargey gave the first speech from Sinn Fein.

Ms Hargey told MLAs said sadness had fallen on the chamber.

“No words can describe the shock, anguish, pain they must be feeling now in the loss of their daddy, their husband and their son,” she told MLAs.

She said despite the young age of Mr Stalford, members of her party had known him for a long time, stretching back to university debates, adding that she had known him for over a decade from their days as councillors at Belfast City Hall.

“He was a passionate unionist and would be determined in defending his position on the street and in any of the political chambers that he sat,” she said.

“Whilst our politics differed, we shared similarities, growing up in working-class communities in south Belfast. He came from Annadale, and I from just across the Lagan in the Market area. Like me, he often spoke with pride of the community that he came from.”

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said it was a very sombre day for the Stormont Assembly, but particularly the DUP.

She recalled Christopher Stalford as “challenging, argumentative, ambitious, combative during debates”, but also “kind, quick-witted, fiercely intelligent and very, very funny”.

“Christopher Stalford was unique, he loved politics, he loved being a public representative, he enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate more than I would say any other member of this House,” she said.

Ms Mallon said the love Mr Stalford had for his family “radiated off him”.

“We all feel a sense of loss today but the loss of a young husband and father will be felt most acutely by those he loved the most,” she said.

“I hope that they can take comfort from the incredible legacy that Christopher leaves behind, the warmest regard in which his colleagues from every political tradition held him and the real difference he made to so many people’s lives.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said the news of the death of Christopher Stalford had literally taken his breath away.

Mr Beattie told the Stormont Assembly: “I have no adequate words, I have no words which will quench the anguish of his party colleagues sitting here today.

“I have no words that will help with the pain that his family is dealing with.

“Christopher was unique, he was a fierce debater and he had a cracking wit.

“He was totally immersed in politics, there was none like him.

“But he was also a father, a husband, a son, and every interaction I ever had with Christopher, that is what came out in spades.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said Christopher Stalford’s family and children were “at the heart of everything he did”.

She told the Assembly: “We had very difficult political backgrounds and very different political views, but we had a lot in common.

“We were both fiercely proud of coming from working-class backgrounds, we both had a passion for the communities we grew up in which drove us into politics, and we both believed passionately that education was the route to lift people permanently out of disadvantage.

“Despite the fact that we were opponents, we were also friends.”

Mr Stalford was principal deputy speaker at Stormont, having been an MLA since 2016, having served previously as a councillor, high sheriff of Belfast and deputy mayor.

A young man who had come a long way in his time from his working class background in south Belfast to the deputy principal speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Earlier DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party was still in shock at the news of Mr Stalford’s death.

He told the BBC Good Morning Ulster programme: “Christopher was a hugely valued member of our team at Stormont. He was greatly respected.

“A young man who had come a long way in his time from his working class background in south Belfast to the deputy principal speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, something he was immensely proud of.

“More than anything else the one thing that stood out about Christopher was his love for his family. You couldn’t have a conversation with Christopher without him talking about his family.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Christopher Stalford had a great love of his family (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

Sir Jeffrey added: “I spoke to him on Friday evening and whilst 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.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Laura and the children. This must be just absolutely devastating for them.

“As a party we will gather around to support the family at this time.

“We are immensely appreciative of the many messages we have received from political colleagues right across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland, and indeed from beyond Northern Ireland as well.”

The DUP leader said that people sometimes lose sight of the fact that politicians are human beings as well.

He said: “They have families, they have loved ones.

“Christopher was someone who believed passionately in Northern Ireland.

“His desire to create a better future for his children, to give them the hope of that future was something which drove him on.”

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