The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician Christopher Stalford has died suddenly at the age of 39.
Mr Stalford was a well-known member of the party and had represented South Belfast in the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2016.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he was deeply saddened at Mr Stalford’s death.
Sir Jeffrey said Mr Stalford was “not just an elected representative or a colleague, he was a friend”.
Mr Stalford is survived by his wife Laura and four children.
‘Shadow of loss’
The DUP leader said his sympathies were with the wider Stalford family on the “loss of a husband, father, son and brother”.
“I talked at length with Christopher on Friday night,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“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.”
DUP chairman Lord Morrow said he had known Mr Stalford since he was a child.
“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,” he said.
The party’s North Antrim MP Ian Paisley said he had “loved politics and engagement with the public”.
“We just do not know what a day will bring forward and today a shadow of loss hangs over our party,” he added.
A passionate politician
Christopher Stalford had a passion for politics.
He once thought about being a history or politics teacher and before he became a politician he often took part in discussion programmes on radio and television.
An articulate advocate for unionism, he began working for the then DUP MEP Jim Allister and also for the MLA Peter Weir.
Later he joined the DUP`s press team.
After 11 years on Belfast City Council he became an assembly member for South Belfast where he was brought up – it was a place he was very proud of.
He often talked about growing up in Annadale Flats near the River Lagan.
He once described himself as an Arlene Ultra when Arlene Foster was party leader – but last year he supported Edwin Poots in his bid for leadership.
In private Christopher Stalford was a very witty man.
He took his job as a public representative seriously, but never himself. He liked nothing more than winding up colleagues and political rivals.
When Stormont returned in 2020 he relished the role of principal deputy speaker and even at moments of political tension his personality and sense of humour shone through.
Mr Stalford had worked in the DUP press office for a number of years before becoming an elected representative.
Elected to Belfast City Council in 2005, he served as deputy mayor from 2013 to 2014.
In 2016, he was one of two DUP candidates selected to run for the South Belfast constituency in the assembly election.
After the restoration of the Stormont institutions in 2020, Mr Stalford was appointed principal deputy speaker to chair debates in the assembly.
‘A wry smile and a laugh’
Sinn Féin’s Vice-President Michelle O’Neill called news of Mr Stalford’s death “desperately sad”.
“His friends and colleagues throughout the world of politics will miss his political contribution, and his constituents his local efforts and leadership across south Belfast,” she added.
“Christopher and I knew each other for more than 20 years and this news has come as such a shock,” he said.
“You 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.”
Doug Beattie, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said he was “lost for words” at the news.
“He was someone I liked, respected and who worked tirelessly for his community and country,” he added.
Naomi Long, Alliance Party leader, said it was hard to put into words her “shock, sadness and devastation”.
“Despite our politics often being radically different, Christopher and I had a warm personal friendship, with him often talking to me about his pride in his family,” said Mrs Long.
“He was a genuine and funny person, who was dedicated to public service.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said words were not adequate to express the shock he felt.
“His colleagues in the assembly and elsewhere will feel an aching void, though it is his family who above all require the prayers and support of us all,” he said.
Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheál Martin said he was “deeply saddened”.
“I conveyed my sympathies to his party leader Jeffrey Donaldson earlier, and my sincere condolences go to his wife Laura, children, family, friends and colleagues in the DUP,” he said.
Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, offered sincere condolences to Mr Stalford’s family.
“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,” Mr Lewis said.