Official Report: Monday 21 February 2022

The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Christopher Stalford MLA

Mr Speaker: Members, this is a sad gathering here this afternoon to pay tribute to our friend and colleague, Principal Deputy Speaker, Mr Christopher Stalford MLA, who, sadly, passed away suddenly at the weekend.

First, I thank all the party Whips for their engagement, agreement and cooperation yesterday. Before I make my remarks, I will explain today's proceedings. After my comments, I will invite representatives from each party to pay their respects, followed by any other Members who wish to speak. Following all the tributes, we will observe a minute's silence as a mark of respect to our friend and colleague. The Assembly will then adjourn for the rest of the day. I will ask the Business Committee to meet later today to reschedule business and revise the Order Papers in due course.

Members, it is my very sad duty to stand here today to express condolences on the passing of our friend and colleague, the Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher Stalford. None of us would have ever imagined that we would be here today in these circumstances for a Member who had so much more to give. I acknowledge the shock that yesterday's news has brought collectively to the whole Assembly, especially, of course, to his friends and colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party, who have our sympathies today. As Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher also had a close working relationship with a number of Assembly officials, including in the Speaker's Office, and with the Clerks. I have spoken with many of them this morning. I associate Assembly staff with the condolences today and the deep sense of sadness that we all feel.

Christopher and I got to know each other as councillors for Laganbank on Belfast City Council when he was elected in 2005. Although we came from opposite perspectives, we built up, through being at different events and dealing with common issues, a very positive working relationship.

Christopher was politically active before he even left school. It was no secret that a career in politics was his obvious ambition and probably even his natural calling. In many ways, Christopher was an old head on young shoulders.

When first elected to the Assembly, he was one of our younger Members, but he had a great interest in parliamentary traditions. In conversations, he often referred to historical anecdotes or quotations from whatever political biography he happened to be reading at that time.

Christopher was intelligent, articulate and witty, often at his own expense. At meetings that the Deputy Speakers and I had to prepare for Assembly sittings, or when he called in with staff in the Speaker's Office, he often dropped a joke into the middle of procedural business. Christopher undoubtedly enjoyed the role of Principal Deputy Speaker, and it is no secret that he had high hopes of eventually becoming Speaker. He also relished debating in the Chamber, and I think that one of his frustrations was that he was not allowed to chair the debate and take part in it at the same time [Laughter.]

Mind you, despite his experience in the Chair — he was very professional and courteous — he remained one of the most frequent users of points of order, even though they rarely were points of order. He took seriously the need to be fair to all sides. The way in which he conducted himself in the Speaker's Chair was symbolic of the good relationships that Christopher had across the Assembly. That was very much reflected in the tributes that flowed in yesterday and again today.

Christopher undoubtedly had his personal strong convictions. He enjoyed robust debate and would not let a point go unchallenged. He was, however, a good example of what I wish that the public could see more of about the Assembly: you can have strong differences with other people and express them in the House, but that does not have to cross over into relationships outside the Chamber. As others rightly said, Christopher could disagree without being disagreeable.

Christopher was passionate about politics, his constituency, the Assembly and his faith. None of that, however, came close to his commitment to his family. You could see that from the photos in his office and in his conversations with staff when he often walked in and talked about his children. In fact, they were the subject of the last conversation that I had with him in the Speaker's Office just a few days ago.

I express our sympathies to Christopher's wife, Laura, and his four children, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail, his mother, Karen, his stepfather, Eric, his sister, Angela, and the wider family circle. While it will never compensate for their loss, I hope and trust that his family can take some comfort in the future from happy memories and the high regard in which he was held. The Stalford family are uppermost in our thoughts and prayers today.

Ms P Bradley: On behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party, I rise to honour and give thanks for the life of our much-loved friend and esteemed colleague, Christopher Stalford. Words cannot adequately describe the sense of pain and loss that is felt on these Benches for a man who meant so much to so many of us. On behalf of the party, I send our deepest sympathies and express our heartfelt sorrow to his wife, Laura, his beautiful children and the wider Stalford family, especially his mum, on the loss of a man who was so utterly devoted to them. Nothing meant more to Christopher than his family. The pride and joy that he felt for them were evident in every conversation that we had. No one will feel the loss of Christopher more than his family. I trust and pray that God will draw near to them at this time of unimaginable heartbreak.

In life, people are born to take certain paths, and Christopher was born to be a public representative. It was a duty that he discharged with unwavering diligence, dedication and devotion. First elected to Belfast City Council in 2005, Christopher was at home in City Hall. He displayed a level of ability that was far beyond his age. His talents and attributes were quickly recognised, and he was elected as High Sheriff of Belfast in 2010 and Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2013. In 2016, Christopher was elected to represent South Belfast in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to serve the area that he was born and raised in and the community that meant so much to him. Christopher's joy came not in holding office but in how he could use that office to improve the everyday lives of those whom he was honoured to represent. As a proud working-class man, Christopher championed the causes and issues that mattered most to his constituents. He was their voice, their advocate and their standard-bearer.

In January 2020, when elected to become Principal Deputy Speaker of the Assembly, he remarked how anything in politics was truly possible. It was beyond his wildest dreams that a working-class boy from Annadale could hold down one of the highest offices in this place. Christopher was determined to use his office not for self but to ensure that any young boy or girl from his background could too fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams.

The heartfelt tributes from across the political spectrum show Christopher's dedication to 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. Let us all strive to honour his memory by working together to achieve that future that Christopher dedicated his career to advancing.

I thank all the parties for their kind words and moving tributes over the weekend. It was a mark of the man that he had friends on all sides of the Chamber. It is hard to imagine these Benches and this party without Christopher. His wit, humour and grace encouraged many of us through darkest times. I will be forever grateful for having the honour of calling Christopher my friend. I will never forget his continued encouragement and steadfast reassurance. I will never be able to fully repay his unwavering support and unimaginable kindness.

The people of South Belfast have lost one of their greatest champions. Unionism has lost one of its greatest advocates. This party has lost one of its greatest servants, and I have lost a dear, dear friend.

Ms Hargey: Where do we begin on a day like today? Sadness has fallen upon the Chamber. First, I want to focus on Christopher's wife, Laura, their four children and, of course, his mummy and the wider Stalford family. No words can describe the shock, anguish and pain that they must be feeling with the loss of their husband, daddy and son. Christopher always spoke of his family with great love and admiration and, indeed, we have been hearing that over the last 24 hours. My and Sinn Féin's sincerest condolences are with them at this moment; a moment that they probably thought that they would never experience at this time of their life.

Even though he was just 39, many in Sinn Féin have known Christopher for a long time, from the days of debating at university and here in the political Chambers, we worked with him across a variety of issues. I knew Christopher for over a decade. I met him in Belfast City Council when I joined as a councillor in December 2010. Instantly, I thought that he was older than me due to his mannerisms and his attire of his pinstripe suit, initially thinking that it was the instructed uniform for all DUP councillors at that time. [Laughter.]

By then, he was already a well-seasoned councillor who enjoyed the work, especially the cut and thrust of debating in committees and in the chamber. Christopher was theatrical in his approach. I often thought that he was destined for Westminster, with "on a point of order" being his favourite phrase, as that allowed him more time to speak and to challenge across the City Hall chamber.

He was a passionate unionist and was determined in defending his position on the street and in any of the political chambers in which he sat. Although 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 about the community that he came from with pride and he spoke with pride about being working class and coming from people who worked hard and supported each other when times got tough.

When he became an MLA, he was determined and conscious of not turning his back on those very communities, establishing his constituency office in the heart of Sandy Row. I worked with him on campaigns to secure investment in communities and on housing and jobs, which were issues that impacted on the communities in which we lived and worked.

I often kept him going about his class consciousness and his love for Margaret Thatcher, which I saw as a contradiction. In true Christopher style, he defended that position to the core.

12.15 pm

Politics can be tough. We are all human. Just like in society, we have our conflicts and disagreements that we often debate, and that is what the public sees most. However, there are other depths to a person that are not always seen, and we have heard that about Christopher in the last 24 hours. There was the time when he left City Hall with a bottle of wine shoved inside his coat pocket. He was hiding it so that Laura's grandmother — the late May Campbell, who was also a DUP councillor — could not see that he was sneaking it out. I joked that I was going to blow his cover, and he just laughed.

Christopher liked to talk about things that he was passionate about: his family, his unionism and, of course, his faith. However, he also liked to see a commonality in engaging and talking to others. Indeed, I found that commonality with him on many occasions. Today, in the midst of a ripple of pain and suffering, we find our commonality as people. It reminded me of this Irish proverb, translated into English, that sits in the halls of Belfast City Hall:

"It is in the shelter of each other that people live."

Today, we offer that love and shelter to his loving family and, of course, his family in the DUP. May he rest in peace.

Ms Mallon: As others have said, this is a very sombre day for the Assembly, but particularly for Christopher's friends and colleagues in the DUP. We know what it is like to lose a friend suddenly, and our thoughts are with you all today. We are truly, truly sorry.

I have known Christopher Stalford for more than a decade. We served together on Belfast City Council and, later, as representatives in this House. In all that time, I got to know a man who was challenging, argumentative, ambitious — some may even say that he was combative during debates — but also a man who was kind, quick-witted, fiercely intelligent and very, very funny.

When I think about Christopher, I think of the word unique. Christopher Stalford was unique. He loved politics and being a public representative. He enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate — more, I would say, than any other Member of the House. There is probably not a Member here who was not on the receiving end of a sharp retort or a withering glance during a contribution, but disagreements were always followed by a wry smile and a laugh.

As much as he enjoyed public life and helping people, it was clear to anyone who spoke to Christopher, even just in passing, how much he adored his family. His love for Laura, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail radiated from him when he spoke about how the children were getting on or what they were up to at home.

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

Mr Beattie: When I heard the news of Christopher's death on Sunday, my heart sank. The shock of the news literally took my breath away. I have no adequate words. I have no words that will quench the anguish of his party colleagues who are sitting here today. I have no words that will help with the pain that his family is dealing with today. I have no quick quip that can truly outline the person that we all knew and had interactions with. In this brief moment in the Assembly, those words are just not there.

Christopher was unique; absolutely, he was unique. He was a fierce debater, and he had a cracking wit.

We all saw that cracking wit. He was totally immersed in politics. There was none like him; I saw that every day. He was, however, also a father, a husband and a son. In every interaction that I ever had with Christopher, that is what came out in spades.

I did not just like Christopher Stalford; I was jealous of Christopher Stalford. He was truly a first-class politician and family man. I am going to miss him. I am going to miss Christopher Stalford walking through the Assembly, in the Chamber and in the Speaker's Chair. The Assembly will be a lesser place for Christopher Stalford's not being here, but it is a greater place because he was here in the first place. May he truly rest in peace.

Mrs Long: I stood in this place less than a week ago. I sat here and had a chat with Christopher about his daughter and her future, as she was transferring from one school to another. I did not expect that I would be standing here this afternoon paying tribute to him in these circumstances, but it does not surprise me at all that my last conversation with him was about his children and his family, because they were at the heart of everything that he did.

Christopher and I met in City Hall. He was elected just four years after me. His fierce debating techniques, his challenging and his points of order were well known to me, both as an opponent who shared his love of debate and in my role as lord mayor, when he often challenged me with points of order. He holds the record for being the only member in City Council whose mic I ever turned off during a debate, and I think that he wore it as a badge of honour. We had very different political backgrounds and very different political views, but we had a lot in common. We both lost our father at a young age. We were both fiercely proud of coming from a working-class background. We both had a passion for the communities in which we grew up that drove us into politics, and we both believed passionately that education was the route by which to lift people permanently out of disadvantage in life. We shared a deep faith. For all those reasons and despite the fact that we were opponents many times — he was a very worthy opponent — we were also friends.

In City Hall, he became high sheriff while I was lord mayor. He was the youngest high sheriff to be elected in City Hall, and we worked very closely together during the six-month overlap in our terms of office. He went on to be deputy lord mayor, and, indeed, he would have been lord mayor had he not been interrupted by his election to the Assembly, because he had been selected by his group to take that role on in 2016. He would have made a fantastic lord mayor, just as he made an incredible Principal Deputy Speaker. There are few people who go through this House or, indeed, City Hall with the same passion for parliamentarianism, the same belief in debate and the same love of the cut and thrust and the drama as Christopher had. I often think that he would have fitted in perfectly not on the current Westminster Benches but perhaps on those of 100 years ago, when the real orators took to the stage and held forth at length. I think that he would have found his home there. He would also have, of course, eschewed anything more modern than about 100 years ago, as was his style. He was somebody who loved the procedures. He loved the politics of this place, but he also loved the public service that led to his being here. He was dedicated to his constituents, dedicated to making their lives better than his had been and to giving them every opportunity. In the Chair, he was fair. He could be fierce. He kept us all in order, including me, which is a handful — I accept that — but he used his wit and his self-deprecating humour. You never felt, when you were stopped or challenged by him, that there was any animosity or personal discord behind it.

His love of his politics, however, was outweighed by his adoration of one woman: Margaret Thatcher. I could never really understand that, but I remember a time when he did something that was particularly liberal: I sent him a little photograph of the Iron Lady and said, "She would be very disappointed in you". He wrote back and said, "You know how to hit a man where it hurts". [Laughter.]

Above and outweighing his love of Margaret Thatcher, points of order and politics was his love of his family. He had such pride in their achievements, and he was so dedicated to their future. As I said, the last conversation that we had was about Trinity and what would happen to her next. I offer my condolences to Laura, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail, and to his mum, brothers and sisters and wider family circle. I do not know how they will start to piece back together what they have lost in Christopher; it will be hard for us in the Chamber, but it will be all the harder for them. I hope that they know that we hold them in our thoughts and prayers, that they have our love and that he, too, had our love and our respect.

Ms Bailey: I, too, associate myself with a lot of the comments that have been made by Members about Christopher's professionalism, capability and absolute natural talent for the role that he performed and the public service that he gave. On behalf of the Green Party, I especially extend my deepest condolences to Christopher's wife, Laura, his four children and his mummy, all of whom he adored and loved in equal measure, and, of course, to his party colleagues for the loss that they are all having to go through.

I was totally shocked yesterday when I learned of Christopher's death. Like so many, I am still truly struggling to come to terms with it. I did not know Christopher for decades, but I knew him for quite a long time, particularly since both of us were first elected as MLAs for South Belfast in 2016. I remember that count very well; I think that it was one of the longest counts that we have ever had. I was returned to the fourth seat, closely followed by Christopher, who was returned to the fifth seat. I remember his joy at being elected as an MLA and his emotion on that day, knowing that he had been given that endorsement and mandate from the people of the constituency that he was born and bred in and loved so much.

We had a snap election in 2017, and the number of MLAs in each constituency was reduced, and I remember his panic during that election count, because, in addition to all the good stories that we are hearing about him, he was a fiercely focused man. He knew what he wanted, and he desperately wanted to get there and remain there. In 2017, I remember that Christopher and I were the last two standing at what I think was the longest election count that we have ever had in Northern Ireland. It was the very early hours after a very long count, but he would not go home until his election had been announced, until he had taken his place on the stage and until he had been able to thank everyone who had given him the privilege of their vote and supported him in securing that seat in 2017.

Christopher was never afraid to ask for advice or to just sit down and have a casual conversation, talk off the cuff and be very human. He knew exactly how to build relationships, and I thank him for everything that he did in his work with me at a constituency level with the communities in which he was so embedded.

It was only on Saturday evening that I had a conversation with someone who asked me, "Here, what's Stalford really like?". I replied, as I always do when I am asked that question, by saying that he had a wit that was razor-sharp and would cut you in two, and, very often, he did. Much has been said of his humour, and it is all true. All that I would add to that is that his humour was always articulated with astute intelligence and sharp observation, and when his wit cut, it was never with malice. That is how he stood out, and that is how I will always remember him.

12.30 pm

Little did I know on Saturday evening, when I was having that conversation, the news that would come through on Sunday morning. The Assembly, and Northern Ireland politics, will miss him, and I will miss him.

Mr Allister: I will readily confess to the House that I still have difficulty in processing the shock of the passing of Christopher Stalford, and I know that many Members are in exactly that place. However, if that is the place that we are in, it pales into total insignificance compared with the devastation that, undoubtedly, his beloved wife Laura and his beautiful children are experiencing.

I want to begin by expressing to them the sincerest of sympathies on their unspeakable loss; to his party colleagues for their loss, too; and to a group that is sometimes overlooked in circumstances like this, his constituency staff, who will, equally, have an aching void today over what has happened. To all those people, I wish to express the condolences of myself and my party on the passing of Christopher.

I have known Christopher for nigh on two decades. He came to work for me — I think that it was his first job after university — in my Belfast office for two to three years when I was an MEP. It was evident to me that he had the ability and the talent that would make him the politician that he was. Although our political perspectives diverged, I am pleased to say that we retained a friendship and a respect that lasted down all those years. I think back to attending his wedding, and now I think of the family that is left. It is very hard, I have no doubt, for all affected.

When Christopher came to the House, he was, in many ways, a breath of fresh air because he brought a tremendous respect for parliamentary tradition but, at the same time, great ability, which he demonstrated. His capacity as an orator and as someone who could make a point and make it effectively, way above the standard generally prevailing in the House, was striking. Then, when he took the position of Principal Deputy Speaker, he performed that role with such skill and aplomb that he won friends and respect across the House, and well he might.

Today, we are in a period of great loss. The House is much the poorer for the passing of Christopher Stalford. His memory, I have no doubt, will live long in this place, and so it should, but our thoughts have to be concentrated on his beloved family: his wife, his children, his mother and his sister who, undoubtedly, are grieving in manners we can only begin to understand. May the God of all comfort be with them at this time, and in the future, which will be difficult for many years to come. I pray and trust that they will know that comfort.

Christopher's passing, of course, is a reminder of the mortality of us all and that the place that knows us today tomorrow will know us no more.

Mr Carroll: I offer my and my party's condolences to the family of Christopher Stalford — his wife Laura, his four children and his mother — his party colleagues and all those who worked closely with Christopher and knew him much more closely than I. I can only imagine the heartbreak that people are going through today, and my thoughts are with them on this very tough day. I am still in disbelief, as, I am sure, many others are.

On this sad day, it seems a bit strange to say anything other than that, but, given that Christopher Stalford gave so many years to politics, it is worth saying something briefly about that. I first met or maybe clashed with Christopher Stalford when I entered Belfast City Hall in 2014. It is fair to say that there was robust debate, strong disagreements, obscure references that I did not quite understand and points about socialism that I obviously did not agree with. However, he made his points very strongly and robustly indeed.

Another experience of him was in his role as a Deputy Speaker in the Speaker's Chair. I have to say that he was an absolutely fair Speaker. He was someone who went out of his way to ensure that all voices were heard throughout debates and discussions, who humorously reminded Members not to go on for too long, even though he did not always succeed or get his way, and who, during hours and hours of debate, gave humorous prefaces before Members spoke to remind them again not to go on for too long.

It is a very sad day. I offer my condolences to everybody who is grieving on this tremendously difficult day.

Ms Sugden: I, too, express my heartfelt condolences to Christopher's wife Laura, their four beautiful children, his family, including his mother, and his DUP colleagues. Christopher's passing is truly devastating for all who knew him. I have no doubt that every MLA — indeed, every public representative — felt the shock and deep sadness of Christopher's death yesterday. I felt numb. I still do. It feels so close, I suppose, because Christopher was one of us. We have lost one of our own. I know how divided the House often is, but, if we silence the noise and set aside the varying perspectives, through all of it, we are individuals who are trying to do a difficult job to help others and improve our ways of life. We give ourselves to public service and make many personal sacrifices in that vein. So, yes, Christopher was one of us. He was the epitome of public service. South Belfast has lost a dedicated servant and a strong voice that was full of conviction. He believed everything that he said, and anyone listening to him saw and felt that too.

It is clear to all of us that Christopher truly enjoyed his role as Principal Deputy Speaker. He enjoyed the procedure, the ceremony and telling off the hecklers. We all enjoyed his telling us off too. I have no doubt that, had the role come with full ceremonial regalia, he would have worn it every time. It would have been pressed, the buttons would have shone and the collar would have been fluffed. In recent days, Mr Donaldson said that Christopher was likely to be the Speaker of the House one day; it is greatly to be regretted that none of us will see that day.

Christopher loved Her Majesty The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, the British Establishment and all the traditional character and dry humour that goes with it. I once sent him a link to a Christmas jumper that was for sale in the House of Commons. It was extravagant, it was British and it was Christopher. He loved it. Christopher was incredibly funny and full of wit, more than he was given public credit for. I always enjoyed seeing him approach me and hoped that he would tell me about something that he disapproved of. He was an absolute joy.

Christopher was so very young — only a few years older than me — but, my goodness, look at what he achieved in his short life. Of course, the hardest part for his family will be not having him in their lives any more. However, I hope that the raw feelings of grief that they are experiencing now will eventually fade to beautiful memories of a devoted father, a loving husband, a committed public representative and so much more. I am not sure that their pain will ever go away, but his family will find ways of moving forward with him inside each one of them.

Rest in peace, dear Christopher, and God bless all who knew and loved him.

Mr Kearney: Like so many others, I was shocked and saddened to learn yesterday of the sudden and untimely passing of our Assembly colleague Christopher Stalford, and I offer my sincere condolences to his wife, Laura, their four little children, his mother, his wider family and friends and his DUP colleagues as all of you come to terms with your unspeakable grief. There are few words that can express the sorrow and the sense of loss that bereavement from the passing of a family member or close friend brings. I can only hope that the treasure of memories — there are many — that Christopher has left his family, friends, colleagues and his party might bring some comfort in the difficult weeks and months ahead.

Christopher's tragic passing is a poignant reminder to us all that those who serve in public life also have private lives. Robust political exchange does not have to be to the exclusion of civility or kindness. Everyone here has family and friends who love them. The heartbreaking news has touched everyone who worked alongside Christopher from across the world of politics and within the community, especially in South Belfast, where he served his constituents with so much and great pride. He made a significant contribution to this local Assembly as Principal Deputy Speaker and as a member of the Executive Office Committee, where our paths often crossed while I was before him as an Executive Office Minister. Of course, we disagreed on much, but I believe that we disagreed well. We could still have friendly, civil conversations and enjoy a joke, and I believe that that was a reflection of Christopher's personality, his upbringing — how he was reared — and his unionism. Today, we all stand together in sympathy with all those who knew and loved him.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I record our recognition and thanks for the good work that Christopher Stalford did. Let us all hope that his contribution will have a lasting value and will never be forgotten. Go raibh suaimhneas síoraí lena anam uasal.

Mr Humphrey: This is the speech that I absolutely did not want to make.

Christopher Stalford was born in 1983, a proud, working-class lad from south Belfast. He attended Wellington College and was immensely proud of that. He was a political activist from a very young age — I suspect probably since he was in a pram. He was a committed unionist and was DUP through and through; in fact, he told me, "If you cut me in half, it would say 'DUP'". We were elected at the same time in the same intake in the Belfast City Council local government elections in 2005. He loved debating, and, even more, he loved winning debates. He was a man of faith and, growing up, was a member of Ballymacarrett Presbyterian Church, and I know that he set a great deal of store by that and that a great influence on his life was the late Reverend Victor Ryan, who passed away in recent weeks.

Christopher lost his father at the age of seven, and that clearly left a mark on young Christopher. He came from a loving family, and I pay tribute to his mother, Karen, for the way she reared her children.

Christopher, Ian Crozier and I formed a strong bond and relationship at City Hall, often chewing the cud until the wee hours. Christopher called us the "Three Amigos". When he was appointed high sheriff in 2010, I was privileged to speak at his installation. With our party phasing out double-jobbing in the spring of 2013, I indicated that I was going to resign my seat and leave City Hall.

Christopher came to me and asked me not to do that, because he was going to be our candidate for deputy lord mayor. He then asked me to propose him at the AGM, and I was privileged to do just that.

"Lord Stalford" and I remained good friends throughout our past two decades, even though we were regularly the butt of each other's jokes and comments. Only last Monday morning in our group room, he was my sparring partner. Christopher was highly intelligent and extremely funny. He had a sharp wit and an infectious laugh.

12.45 pm

I thank those colleagues from across the political divide who contacted me yesterday and this morning. I also thank the SDLP for postponing its conference. Those of us on these Benches deeply appreciated that gesture, and I sent a message to the deputy leader of the SDLP yesterday to thank her.

Christopher loved the thrust of debate and was a natural performer and parliamentarian. When he was elected to the House in 2016, he rang me the night before and said, "Can we sign in together?". The pinnacle of his career — something of which he was hugely proud — was his election as Principal Deputy Speaker of the House. He loved his native South Belfast and its people. It was the community from whence he came, and he was immensely proud to represent it here at Stormont.

He loved history, reading, satire, classical music and, of course, tweed jackets. He also enjoyed the occasional wee glass of wine and whisky. More recently, he began to enjoy his garden with his children, whom he loved dearly. He was a character; he was unique; he was great craic. He was not always the conservative and formally dressed parliamentarian that we saw in the corridors and in the Chamber, in which he excelled so very well. "Tory boy" had a great sense of humour. I remember on a boys' trip to Tenerife that we went to a karaoke club. He said to me, "I'm going to do a wee Frank Sinatra turn", and I said, "Seriously — you?". He got up, and he did Frank Sinatra, and he did Frank Sinatra every night that week at the karaoke club. [Laughter.]

I spoke with Christopher at 11.30 on Friday night, and I was in touch with him again early on Saturday afternoon. Yesterday, I received the awful news that, to be honest, I am struggling to come to terms with, as we all are. It is a loss from which I will never recover. I have lost a friend. He was like a wee brother to me, and we on these Benches have lost a very valued and able colleague. We are mindful this day of the frailty of life. Unionism has lost a great advocate, South Belfast has lost an exceptional representative, and Northern Ireland has lost a proud and visionary son.

Of course, our loss is nothing to the loss of his dear family. Yesterday, my colleague from Strangford Michelle McIlveen and I visited his family. They are distraught and devastated — shocked at a life taken too soon. My deepest sympathy and heartfelt condolences go to his mummy, Karen; his stepfather, Eric; his siblings Angela, Erica and Glen; the love of his life and his rock, Laura; and their beautiful children Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail.

A bright light has gone from this place, and our world is the poorer for Christopher's passing. May the grace of God give the Stalford family and those privileged to be Christopher's friends the strength and courage to face the days ahead. God bless, and goodbye, my friend.

Mr O'Toole: It is genuinely hard to know what to say today. I first encountered Christopher Stalford more than 20 years ago when we both sat on something called the Northern Ireland Youth Parliament at Belfast City Hall — a chamber in which Christopher would later acquit himself so well, as many Members have testified today. On that day, Christopher was, first of all, head and shoulders above anyone else in terms of his ability to debate. He was incisive, witty and infuriating, and he remained so for the subsequent two decades.

Our paths next crossed in January 2020 — two years ago — when I joined the Assembly, and, at the same time, Christopher became Principal Deputy Speaker. After my first debate, one of the first messages that I received from anyone from another party, via email, was from Christopher Stalford. Although we were only briefly acquainted at that point, he sent me a message of welcome and encouragement. At that point, I did not really know Christopher. As I said, I had encountered him two decades before, but he sent me a heartfelt message of welcome and encouragement. From that point on, I understood the mark of the man: a mix of passionate politics, principle and a deep humanity that does not always come across when people watch politicians debate on TV or see them spar on television or, indeed, on social media.

Christopher was a true original. He was a deeply passionate man, a very proud unionist and a very, very proud South Belfast man. He was, as Deirdre and Clare, who also represent that constituency, have said, passionate about that constituency, and he was not only well thought of but held in extremely high regard across it. He was a proud Wellington College old boy — he was very proud of the school that he went to — but he was also keen to build links across the community. He was, for example, a champion of St Joseph's College, a school on the Ravenhill Road that has been long overdue investment. Christopher built relationships and goodwill across the Chamber, across the community and across all those who knew and encountered him in his life and career.

It is true to say that this place will not be the same without Christopher. That is how it felt to me as I drove here today. When people pass, it is a cliché to say that we will be the less without them, but, my gosh, that is so true. The Chamber was Christopher's natural habitat, whether he was debating from the DUP Benches or speaking in the Speaker's Chair. He was brilliant at what he did. He was a brilliant Chair. He was fair and fair-minded. Christopher was an extraordinarily gifted debater — often infuriatingly good — but, as others have said, when the robust exchanges were over, he often shared a joke, a wink or a knowing look across the Chamber, or even came to you outside, as he did to me once or twice, and said, "Fair play. All's fair in debate inside the Assembly Chamber". That is the true mark of a politician.

As has been said, this is a deeply sad day for Christopher's DUP colleagues. It is a sad day for all of us, but it is particularly so for his party colleagues, who will be in profound grief over the loss of such a talented colleague and friend. My thoughts go out to them. Yesterday, I felt profoundly sad. I still feel profoundly sad today as I struggle to come to terms with the loss of such an able man. I cannot imagine what his colleagues feel. Of course, sad as it is for his party colleagues, those in politics who encountered him and the constituents who thought so much of him, that, as has been said, pales in comparison with the unspeakable grief that will be felt by his wife, Laura, and his four small children. Christopher was almost exactly the same age as me — I think that he was a couple of months older. I have one son. I find myself doting on my young son but struggling sometimes to manage a life in politics. Christopher had four children. He was utterly devoted to them, and they came first in his life. To think about the loss felt by his wife and four children is almost unbearable. We hold them in our thoughts today, and they will be in our thoughts going forward.

While Christopher's legacy as an extraordinarily talented parliamentarian, politician and servant of South Belfast will last for a very long time, as Larkin said:

"What will survive of us is love."

What will survive of Christopher most is the intense love in which he clearly was held by his family. May he rest in peace.

Mr Beggs: I, like everyone, was shocked to learn of the passing of Christopher Stalford, our Principal Deputy Speaker. As a Deputy Speaker, I worked closely with Christopher as we endeavoured to provide a consistent and fair debating Chamber for all perspectives. Christopher had a great wit, and he had a turn of phrase that assisted him in managing all unruly MLAs. He had a great knowledge of procedures and points of order that left us Deputy Speakers often struggling to manage him.

I had a great regard for Christopher as an MLA and for his skills in the debating Chamber. He was very able and contributed to a very wide range of debates, making forceful arguments. Despite his young age, he had the presence of a seasoned barrister. He was very capable. He often made interventions to add to the debate, and he was always willing to give way. He was a very capable parliamentarian. His passing is a loss to the Assembly.

Christopher has passed on from this world at the young age of 39. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Laura, his young family, of whom he spoke often, his mother and the wider family circle, and his many friends, all of whom are grieving for him at this time.

Ms Bradshaw: Today is indeed a very sad day for the Assembly. I do not think that any of us can quite believe that Christopher will no longer be joining us.

I met Christopher on a wet morning in 2005 at a polling station in Donegall Pass. He was only 22 at the time and was running for council. As we chatted away the hours, he greatly impressed me with his precocious understanding of our political system, and I knew then that he was destined for a great political career. Little did I or any one of us in the Chamber today who watched his journey through the council chamber in Belfast to the position of Principal Deputy Speaker know how tragically it would be cut short.

Both representing South Belfast, our paths crossed very regularly, not least on hustings panels in the run-up to elections. Despite being there to represent a different party, Christopher was always courteous, charming and, above all, respectful. Christopher's office and mine also worked together on a number of large campaigns over the years on planning applications, for example. Again, that joint working was always done on the basis of how best to represent our constituents.

At this point, I join Mr Allister in extending my condolences to Christopher's staff members, particularly Councillor Tracy Kelly. They always attended community events together and were a formidable team. The community and voluntary sector groups across South Belfast will also be greatly saddened by his passing. He took a really keen interest in local affairs and provided support where he could. I am extremely grateful for all the support that he gave to me while I was working at the Greater Village Regeneration Trust.

The Chamber will never be the same. Christopher brought life and wit to it during lengthy debates. He was always up for an intervention, and his contributions were always heartfelt and well-researched. He was born for politics, and this place will be all the poorer for his sad passing.

In closing, I join others in sending my sincerest condolences to Laura, their four children and his wider family circle, his friends, his Church community and his DUP colleagues. I cannot begin to imagine their grief and pain as they come to terms with their loss.

1.00 pm

Mr O'Dowd: As has been said, Christopher Stalford was a formidable political opponent. He was an intellect, and he was articulate. He could get his point across in such a way that, when you were listening to him or being lambasted by him, you knew that he meant it. However, he meant it in a way that was an attempt to move the debate forward, to move things on or to get you to understand the impact that our actions or comments had on his community, the unionist community.

I see Mervyn sitting exactly where Christopher stood last Tuesday, as he gave us both barrels across the Chamber. There were times, when I had debated with Christopher, that I tried not to like him afterwards, but I could not do that. He was that sort of character, as has been said: such an affable individual. You would meet him the next morning in the corridor, and it would be, "Hello, John. How are you this morning?", and you would start off on a bit of craic and stories with him. During the late night debates, when the votes were going on, he would call me to the Table and tell me the odd story. There were things about his grandmother, who was, clearly, a formidable woman and a socialist, which came to mind when William referred to him as "Tory Boy". I used to say to him, "How did your grandmother, a socialist, end up with a grandson like you?". He would give a wry smile and go on about his admiration for Margaret Thatcher or other people.

I will miss him. As has been said, this place will not be the same without him. We have lost someone who made a huge contribution to politics and to the peace process. He walked the difficult journey that many of us have had to walk of reaching out to others and engaging with people whom we would probably never have engaged with or even met if we were not in this institution. He played his part in that, and he certainly played his part in the history of the Building.

I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife, Laura, to his mother, to his children and to his colleagues in the DUP. He will be a huge loss to them. As I have said, he will be a huge loss to the entire institution. I will miss his wit, I will miss his debating skills and I will miss his wee stories at the Table.

Mr Weir: We meet on a very sad day. It is a very sad day for his friends and colleagues. It is a loss to all of us in the DUP. It is a loss to the Chamber. It is a loss to his constituency staff and, indeed, his constituents in South Belfast. Above all, it is a terrible loss to his family. We have lost a great man, but, perhaps more importantly, we have lost a good man.

I first met Christopher in the days of the first Assembly, when he accompanied his good friend and predecessor Mark Robinson to the Building. That was in the days before Christopher had been at university, and he was still at school. He was distinctive in his Barbour jacket, quite often, or in his suit. Christopher was probably the oldest teenager that I have ever met [Laughter.]

A little bit like Benjamin Button, the older Christopher got in chronological age, the younger he became.

What shone out of Christopher from day one was his talent and ability. Christopher came from a loving and close family, but he was not from any form of privilege. He was a working-class boy, and all that he subsequently achieved was achieved through his talents and ability, whether academic or political. He was deeply articulate, he had great analytical skills, and he had great knowledge. From the early days, whether you were talking about the latest developments in the Chamber at Stormont, what was happening in Annadale or Sandy Row or the latest international developments in Washington or beyond, Christopher was clued-in on all of it. That was why, when I joined the DUP in 2002, the first person whom I headhunted to work for me was Christopher Stalford. It was because he was a person of such talent and ability. I was his first employer.

Down the years, I have seen his development from working in the DUP press office to becoming a councillor at the age of 22, to being high sheriff and deputy mayor and, eventually, to becoming Principal Deputy Speaker. I have looked on that with great pride but with no surprise, because it was the fulfilment of his ability. I had the same good fortune as others to meet Christopher a few moments after he had been told that he was going to be Principal Deputy Speaker. He was glowing with pride, not for his own sake but because of the pleasure that, he knew, it would bring his family.

Christopher was a true Belfast man. He lived in a number of houses in Belfast throughout his life, but he never left Belfast. He was a true Orangeman and a true unionist through and through. He was a politician of conviction in an age when there is a lot of cynicism out there. He was someone who stuck by his convictions but was not bound by them in a way that did not allow him to reach out to others in society or in the Chamber. If there is one crumb of comfort that we can draw from his passing, to quote Abraham Lincoln, it is that it can bring out the "better angels of our nature".

All of us have been deeply touched by the breadth and depth of the genuine outpouring of sympathy and hurt on Christopher's passing. The young Christopher Stalford would have been astonished and delighted to know that, when he passed on, it would be commented on by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The young Christopher Stalford would also have been astonished and probably a little bit appalled to know that it had also been commented on by the Taoiseach, I have to say. [Laughter.]

I join others in thanking the SDLP for its decency and courtesy in cancelling its conference. I am also reminded of the public comments of his old sparring partner and friend Mary Durkan, who was until recently an SDLP councillor up in the north-west. On any occasion when I was up there and ran into Mary, the first thing that she would ask me was, "How's Stalfie doing?". There was a depth to the affection and respect felt for Christopher across the political spectrum.

As William mentioned, he was a man who came with a great hinterland of interests; he was not simply two-dimensional. He was great company on all occasions, a great wit and a great humorist, but he was also a man of untrumpeted kindness to all of us who received phone calls at difficult times from Christopher with an offer of help and support. My personal experience, towards the end of last year, when my mother passed on, was that Christopher was on the phone to me, knowing that I would be alone at Christmas and insisting that I join his family on Christmas Day. Christopher, with his hidden talents, was, of course, an excellent chef. It will not come as any great surprise that, for Christmas dinner, Christopher was not going to confine himself to anything as mundane as cooking a turkey; it was always something a bit more exotic than that.

Whatever the loss that we feel, the pain and loss of his beloved family must be absolutely at the forefront of our minds. No one whom I have ever met has been as much a devoted family man as Christopher — to his mother, to his siblings but particularly to his beloved Laura and his four children, in whom he had such tremendous pride. They must be at the heart of our thoughts today.

I will borrow something from a funeral that I was at recently. We have seen in the many summations of Christopher the words "Christopher Stalford, 1983-2022". The critical thing is not when we are born or when we die but the hyphen in the middle. What Christopher gave to society in his 39 years was more than most people give in more than twice that length of time. Christopher, you had a life well lived, and we will miss you.

Mr McGlone: Much has already been said in tribute to Christopher today, all of it and probably more justifiably so. When I heard the news yesterday, I was truly shocked and saddened like everyone else in society. In our respective roles as Deputy Speaker and Principal Deputy Speaker, I always found Christopher to be courteous, very respectful, very competent and, indeed, very humorous.

That is what made the man and made him such an effective public representative. He had an ability to see the human being, reach out to others on the basis of their humanity and treat others as human beings, going beyond the perceived role of a public representative. He had a deep humanity.

He brought that to the Assembly and, indeed, it was a bit of craic being in the Assembly when he was in the Chair. When I was in the Chair and he was not adhering to the rules that he would have insisted so rigidly that others adhered to, I often had to say to him, "As the Member well knows", because he did well know, and probably knew a lot more than the rest of us, about Standing Orders. That was the measure of the man. Our ability to relate to one another is so important in the Assembly.

His loss elucidates for us the frailty of life and the fact that we are lost in the midst of that frailty. As we all know, he frequently spoke lovingly of his wife, Laura, his mother, his youngsters, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail. To them and his extended family, friends and those within his party, I offer my sincerest and heartfelt sympathies. May God rest his gentle soul.

Dr Aiken: I add my sincere condolences to Christopher's family, Laura and his beautiful children, and his many political friends and colleagues on all sides of the House.

One of my first political memories of Christopher was appearing on 'The View' with him. Even though I was a complete and utter newbie, he gave me the political respect of completely tearing me apart on the programme. [Laughter.]

He did it with wit and skill and more than a gentle reminder that I needed to do my homework. It was a very valuable lesson but it was given in such a nice way that we became, at the very least, good political colleagues and, indeed, friends.

That also reminded me that Christopher was, and is, a member of the A-team. Many of us enjoyed his many interventions, pointed and well-argued questions and excellent debating skills and realised what a talent he was.

I also remember fondly his good company. Several years ago, we both represented our respective parties at an event in Yale in the United States. We were both, very clearly, the only unionists in the village. After a few hours together, we definitely found common cause and a degree of conviviality. I can see two of the other Members who were with us on that trip: we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and Christopher was particularly good company.

Christopher was more than a keen historian and a self-acknowledged political geek. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of US politics and politicians and was more than able to drop the odd uncomfortable truth to the assembled, retired Democratic Party senators, particularly about their "senatocracy" — one of his words and the easiest way of putting it — and gently, by Christopher's standards, rib them about their double standards and get his point across, especially from his hard-earned, unionist and working-class perspective. Quite frankly, it was fun to watch.

However, it is from these Benches that I most fondly remember him: the gentle, and sometimes not-so-gentle, wit and incisive observation and the need, above all, for him to support democratic accountability. From whichever corner the challenge to democratic accountability came, he addressed it robustly.

He brought a passion for politics that transcended the narrow political confines of this place. He was on a journey to greater political office, but he never forgot his roots. South Belfast and Northern Ireland will miss him, but he will be very much missed by his family. There was a lot to respect Christopher for and today we have lost a lot in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland. He, his family and his children are, and will continue to be, in my prayers. May he rest in peace.

1.15 pm

Mr Muir: It is hard to put into words how I and so many people feel at Christopher's passing. As others have said, it is really hard to comprehend the news that Christopher is gone. Yesterday, my immediate thoughts turned to his wife, Laura, his four lovely children, his family and his wider DUP family. That is where my thoughts are today. This place has so many people with different views and opinions, but, to me, as someone, like others, who has been here for just over two years, Christopher stood out. I feel very lucky that I got to know him over my time in the Assembly.

I had a lot of respect for Christopher. He was one of those politicians — I wish that we had more of them — who was able to play the ball and not the player. He always had a warm welcome for me when we met, even after a feisty debate in the Chamber. He was capable of humour and a wry smile during debates, particularly when someone was making a comment or contribution. If you looked across at Christopher, you got a smile and knew that, really, you agreed.

Christopher had real passion for and pride in the area that he represented. The last conversation that I had with him was about my pride in the fact that he had not forgotten his roots. He was someone from the area that he represented, and he did it so ably.

We had a number of conversations when I first joined the Assembly, which I remember. He saw me wearing my dicky bow and he took that as a challenge, because he was always impeccably turned out. He wanted to see whether his waistcoat and his excellent dress sense rivalled mine. We continued to challenge each other on that. We also shared a lot of political interests, such as 'House of Cards' — the UK edition, of course. In good, old-fashioned debates in the Chamber, his comments never turned unnecessarily personal, but you knew that, when Christopher asked to make an intervention and you accepted it, the strength of your argument was going to be well and truly tested. That was Christopher's nature, but, afterwards, you had a good chat.

In my view, Christopher was an excellent Principal Deputy Speaker. He loved the role, and he would have absolutely excelled in the role of Speaker. He was fair but firm, and he was across the detail. When he was in the Chair, Members knew that he knew the score. He was also able to add a bit of laughter to debates; in particular, when the going got tough, he was able to get us through, no matter what time of night it was.

On New Year's Day, when I was ill, Christopher was one of the first people who contacted me to ask, "Are you OK?". To me, that was the ultimate measure of the man. He was a man of integrity, a real gentleman and a man who is lost but will not be forgotten. I mourn Christopher's passing.

Dr Archibald: I, too, extend my sincere condolences to Christopher's wife, Laura, their children, his mum, his family and friends and, obviously, his party colleagues. I am very, very sorry for your loss.

As others have said, Christopher talked all the time about his wife and children. He clearly loved them dearly and was very proud of them. I think, genuinely, that I might know more about Christopher's family than I do about the families of some of my party colleagues. He was also proud to be from a working-class background and to represent his community.

Christopher was one of those people who always spoke to you; it did not matter where you were. I got to know him better, however, when he was on the Economy Committee. As others have mentioned, he was very witty — sometimes caustically so — but he was always respectful and friendly and would never pass you by.

Christopher was a very able parliamentarian and loved being one. He could certainly be robust, but, as Andrew said, he was someone who played the ball and not the player. That was the thing about Christopher: he was decent; he had manners; he had class. We are worse off for his loss. His intelligence, his dedication to the Assembly and his humour will be missed, and I will miss him.

Mr Lyons: I record my thanks to colleagues inside and outside the Chamber who have taken the time, over the past day or so, to get in contact with us to pass on their sympathies and condolences on the passing of our friend and colleague Christopher Stalford.

We are in deep shock at the sudden nature of his passing. We are overwhelmingly sad at the loss of a friend and colleague. We are also immensely sorrowful when we think of Laura, Trinity, Cameron, Oliver and Abigail, for, as much as we miss him as a friend and colleague, we cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for those who have lost a husband and a father. They are constantly in our thoughts and prayers.

One reason why it is so difficult to comprehend that Christopher is no longer with us is that he was such a larger-than-life character. The first time that I met Christopher was at a DUP conference dinner. I was plonked down beside him and was not quite sure what to make of this young man in a middle-aged man's three-piece suit, but he had the table roaring with laughter in no time, and I have been laughing ever since.

I worked with Christopher in our party headquarters for three years, and I can assure Members that he was every bit as forceful in his views then as he was in the Assembly. He was extremely passionate about everything. There were many colourful moments, fervent arguments and discussions between him and some of the staff. As was the case throughout Christopher's political career, however, it never got personal; he was more interested in destroying his opponents' arguments than in destroying his opponents.

Much has been said of his role in the Speaker's Chair, but I always appreciated much more having him behind us in the Benches during debates, because he livened them up no end. In particular, Christopher would often have got on his phone when he was behind me and sent me a running commentary of his views on the speeches that had just taken place. On a number of occasions, he said to me, "This is drier than Ryvita". [Laughter.]

Although Christopher would poke fun at others, it was always done in good humour and was not nasty. Importantly, he could always make fun of himself. When I became Economy Minister last year, Christopher signed me in in the Speaker's Office, along with our Chief Executive, Lesley Hogg. A photo was taken of me signing the pledge of office, and Christopher and Lesley were behind me on either side. Some wag on Twitter said, "Isn't it nice that Gordon Lyons brought his parents with him today". [Laughter.]

Of course, Christopher roared with laughter and showed the tweet to everybody.

Most of us know Christopher and know what he was like. If you did not know Christopher, he can best be understood by looking at the things that he loved. First of all, he loved Stormont. He loved this place and its history and he loved being an elected representative. It was a long-held ambition of his to be elected to the Assembly, especially because of his humble roots. In case you did not know — you should, because Christopher loved to remind people — Christopher was a working-class boy from South Belfast, born in the Annadale flats, and he was so proud that someone from his background was serving in this place. He loved this Chamber and he loved the debate. His sense of humour and fun, which was evident in all aspects of his life, really shone through here.

Not only did he love this place, but he loved his constituency of South Belfast and he loved his constituents, particularly those who voted for him. As much as he loved being in this place, he saw it as more than that; he saw it as an opportunity for the voices of the people that he represented to be heard. Christopher believed in fairness. He wanted to speak up for those who do not have a voice. He also wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to succeed in the way that he had.

Christopher also loved his party. He loved it so much that he actually wrote a history of the DUP. He was always willing to appear in the media to defend and promote the party. When elections were on, he was out there with a rosette and a smile on his face, even when he was not a candidate. He was at every conference, every dinner and every meeting. Of course, he loved our country as well. He loved Northern Ireland and its place in the UK. He loved our history, culture, customs and people. He was a monarchist and a traditionalist, and he was thoroughly conservative.

As has been said so many times, he loved his family.

Every conversation that I had with him invariably ended up with him talking about his family. When I spoke to him last on Saturday morning, he told me with pride about the latest in the saga of his daughter transferring to big school. Family was so important to him, not just his wife, Laura, and his children, but his mummy and "our Angela", "our Erica" and "our Glen". His love for his family was absolute.

Christopher also loved God. Christopher was a Christian. His faith defined, shaped and drove him. He made that clear in an interview that he did with the 'Belfast Telegraph' in 2017. When asked about death and whether it frightened him, he said:

"No, because, as a Christian, I believe that when we die, if we have faith in Christ, then we go to Heaven."

It was that faith in Christ that sustained him over the years. I hope that that faith will comfort and sustain his family in the days ahead.

Mr Nesbitt: I am sure that I am not the only person in the Chamber who woke up this morning, hoping that it was not true. Radio Ulster was not long in disabusing me of the hope that that Door to my left might open and usher in a dapper-looking 39-year-old with a mind full of purpose and mischief.

Believe it or not, my first memory of meeting Christopher was at an auction house in east Belfast. He was there with some friends. I was there with a camera crew to do a sort of beginner's guide to bargain hunting. It turned out to be a great coincidence that Christopher was there, because he knew everything about getting the goods that you wanted at the price that you wanted to pay. Our last conversation was here last week. We discussed the fact that, although there is a very detailed set of Standing Orders that govern how business is conducted in this Chamber, there is actually nothing about how Chairs conduct their business in our Statutory Committees. Maybe that will be part of his legacy.

In between times, we served together on the Committee for the Executive Office, which I chaired. I like to fondly believe that Christopher was put on the Committee by the DUP because it felt that it needed to man-mark me, and so put in one of its finest. He certainly was not slow to point out my errors. There were errors — plural — on most occasions. He surprised me again when we met as we were breaking for the election. He surprised me by saying that I had surprised him. I said, "Pray tell". He said, "Well, you've been a better Chair than I was expecting. Frankly, my expectations were very, very low". [Laughter.]

I will wear that as a badge of honour.

When I last drove into the Braniel estate, Christopher happened to be driving out. When he spotted me, there was a big wave and a big smile that seemed to say, "I'm so proud that there's another MLA in my area". My thoughts today are with the community in which he lived, and which he served, but, most of all, with his family, particularly his wife and children. I certainly do not have words that are adequate to express their sense of shock, loss and grief.

Mr Lyttle: On behalf of the Alliance Party, myself and my family, who met Christopher on a number of occasions and held him in the highest regard, I extend my sincerest condolences and heartfelt sympathy to Christopher's wife, Laura, his children, his mother, all his family and the wider DUP family, at this time of unimaginable grief and loss. Your husband, dad, son and brother talked about you so very often and loved you all so very much. His enduring legacy will be one of love for his family, service to his community, and, as others have said, faith in his God.

May that love and Christian faith comfort you at this time and allow you to feel Christopher with you always.

1.30 pm

I first met Christopher 20 years ago when we served on Queen's University's student council together, with Mary Durkan and others, as has been mentioned. He was one of the few young men on a student council to wear a pinstriped suit. He knew every standing order inside out and A to Z. He was, as his colleagues have said, a born parliamentarian. He took to the roles of councillor, MLA and Principal Deputy Speaker of the Assembly like a duck to water. We debated robustly. I will forever see him on these Benches advocating with skill and animation, and, at times, daring to take a stand on his convictions whether or not they were entirely in line with those of all his colleagues.

Most importantly, though, we spoke with humanity in private frequently, more often than not about our families. Christopher loved his family with all his heart, soul and spirit. They were his everything. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers, and any support that I can give them, are with them at this time.

Mr Lunn: I want to start by expressing my sympathy and condolences, along with everybody else, to Christopher's family, his wife, Laura, and his four children on the awful shock that they suffered at the weekend. I also want to express my condolences and sympathy to Christopher's DUP colleagues. I do not often sit on this side of the Chamber, but it is plain to see from their expressions, both verbal and facial, how hard this has hit them. It is a tremendous loss — a grievous loss — to the DUP, the Assembly and Northern Ireland politics.

My first encounter with Christopher was not in person but on Twitter. Perhaps it is not the best medium on which to meet someone, but there we are. It happened way back when I was here and he was still on Belfast City Council. I tweeted something that he did not like. By the time that the exchange was finished, I was definitely the loser and Christopher was the winner. I remember thinking about Abraham Lincoln's comments all those years ago. When he had been in touch with somebody he was unsure about, he said

"I don't like that man. I must get to know him better."

I always thought that that was profound. When Christopher eventually arrived up here, I got to know him better, as did everybody else. I particularly remember his debating skills, which others have mentioned. Prior to 2016, when you got on your feet to speak, you had a fair chance of getting through what you had to say without intervention. After 2016, it was not really a case of whether Christopher would intervene, but when and how many times. His intervention skills were forensic. He was really good at it, partly because he was so au fait with the rules and procedures of the House, which he demonstrated so ably when he became Principal Deputy Speaker. I have no doubt, and agree with others, that he would have become Speaker of the House in due course.

Christopher will be missed by everybody in the Chamber. His loss is to politics in Northern Ireland and the House, but the greatest loss is to his colleagues across the Chamber and, of course, to his wife and family. I grieve for them today, as we all do. I hope that they can find the strength to get through this, however long it takes. It is a dreadful loss.

Ms Dillon: I served as Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges with Christopher as my Deputy Chair for a short period. He was an absolute gentleman, as he was in everything else. He was full of integrity and a pleasure to do business with. It would have been difficult to have known Christopher and not be fond of him, regardless of your political persuasion. That has been shown clearly right across the Chamber today.

I offer my sincere condolences to all his party colleagues and everyone who knew and loved him, particularly his mummy, wife and children, because the loss that they feel is unimaginable.

I genuinely felt sad yesterday when I heard the news, and I still feel that overwhelming sadness. My thoughts are with you all. He will be missed by me, by this place but, most of all, by his family.

Mr Givan: Today's debate to pay tribute to Christopher is a most untimely one. He had a lifetime of politics ahead of him. He became the standard-bearer for our party in South Belfast. Nobody could rival him in the constituency. He had made it his own within the DUP, and I have no doubt that he would have been elected with ease in a couple of months' time because of the work that he did in the constituency. He also had a great future in this place, so this is untimely. We have to accept, however, that our ways are not always God's ways. Difficult as that is for us to come to terms with and difficult as that is for his family to come to terms with, we have to submit to that higher authority and sovereignty in all things, challenging, at times, as that may be for us.

My relationship with Christopher goes back to when we were teenagers. A working-class boy, he went to a grammar school, and I went to a secondary school, which he pointed out to me on many occasions. We met at Belfast City Hall when I was representing my school, Laurelhill, and he was representing Wellington, and, very quickly, I realised that his politics were the same as mine. He had the ability then to debate, and he and I had a very effective tag team going on during that debate at Belfast City Hall. He was 15, I was 16, and I have known Christopher since then.

It is true what they say: iron sharpens iron. At that time, a group of young people in the party formed a key group in the Young Democrats, revived it and got it going again, and Christopher was part of that. As one of that group, I remember spending many an evening in 1998 and 1999 discussing what we could do to build the party. The Ulster Unionists were the dominant force at the time, and we discussed what more we could do in different constituencies to develop the DUP. Christopher loved being involved in all that. He talked a lot about Queen's University, the students' union and the council at those meetings. I could not do that — I was at the University of Ulster — and, of course, he loved to say, "That is not a real university. Queen's is where it's at" [Laughter.]

That was just one of the disparaging put-downs that he employed against us. Similarly, when we were both elected in 2005 — I to Lisburn and Christopher to Belfast — he often said, "You are just a suburb of Belfast"


and "You needed city status to deal with your inferiority complex". Christopher was brilliant at putting you in your place in a way that only he could. In 2007, we both stood in the Assembly elections. Neither of us was successful, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before Christopher would be here, and he got here in 2016.

Christopher always reminded us of his working-class background in Annadale. He strove to improve himself through education. He very much believed that people from a working-class background could better themselves through commitment to education and hard work. He championed the area that he represented. On many occasions, he had me there as Communities Minister or as First Minister, and I could see in the engagements that he had across the community how we wanted to improve the constituency that he represented. The tributes that have been paid to him by schools, football clubs and community groups across the constituency speak volumes for the high esteem in which he was held.

As a constituency representative, Christopher helped countless people through his constituency office. Having spoken to Paul Porter, who worked for Christopher, I know how much Tracy Kelly, Sarah Bunting and Nathan Anderson are hurting.

Tracy and Sarah are two local girls whom he employed. He encouraged them to stand at the last council election because he wanted more women to be in politics. He successfully got both of them elected, and they are city councillors today in Belfast. They are grieving the loss of not just the boss but someone who was a supporter and encourager. He always wanted to know how they were getting on in the council and what they were doing, and he encouraged them in their work. We remember especially that group of staff as well.

Christopher was DUP to his core. He was one of the brightest and most articulate representatives that we had. His loss will be sorely felt on these Benches. In the party internally and publicly, Christopher had the strength of his convictions to try to change and influence party policy. It did not matter if he disagreed with the leader or friends, he would give his view. He did not get involved in politics just to be a passenger; he wanted to be a player at the heart of the action. He sought to shape the party's positions, and then he went out and defended them to the public. At times, if you were upstairs looking for a recruit to deal with a difficult issue in the Chamber, not many hands would go up, but Christopher would volunteer, saying, "I will go in and engage in the battle on behalf of the party. I will go into the TV studios and engage in the battle on behalf of the party". Christopher always stepped forward for the Democratic Unionist Party in good times and in bad times.

Christopher was a gentle soul. Behind his robust and combative performance in the Chamber, he was a gentle soul at heart. He was compassionate. He would have been one of the first to send you a text message or pick up the phone to ask, "How are you keeping? I know that that was difficult for you". He would walk into your office and, at times, provide advice, saying, "Just to let you know, this is what some people are saying. I am giving you a little bit of critical advice, but it is because I want you to do well". That was what Christopher was like.

Most of all, and everyone has touched on this, he loved his family. I would go into his office and spend many an hour too long chatting to him, but in the run-up to Christmas — Jim talked about this earlier — I always saw that Santa had arrived and stored all the presents in his office. That is where he kept them before they were to be delivered to his family. How devastating it must be for his wife, Laura, who was his childhood sweetheart, and their four children, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail, to have to go through this. His mum, Karen, was his chief canvasser and cared so much about him and wanted him to do well. She was on the campaign trail with him at every election. We think about them.

When his children are older and read the contributions that people have made, they will take comfort from them. Let us have it on the record that his life, short as it has been, was well lived. He achieved so much. His legacy will live on in South Belfast, in his contribution here and through his family. We thank you for all that he achieved in his life.

For Christopher and me, it will be "Till we meet again". I look forward to that reunion one day with Christopher. I thank colleagues for all that they have said. Their support is much appreciated by all of us on these Benches.

Mr McAleer: I was extremely shocked and saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of our Principal Deputy Speaker, Christopher Stalford. As Chair of the AERA Committee, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to Christopher's wife, Laura, his young family and his mother at this awful time. I also extend sympathy to our fellow Committee members, Harry, Tom and William and, indeed, the wider DUP at the loss of a dear colleague.

My experience of Christopher was that he was a man of conviction and passion who could eloquently argue his case from the Benches opposite. When he took his place in the Chair, he was scrupulously impartial and fair to everyone in the Chamber.

He performed his role as Principal Deputy Speaker impeccably and applied the rules of the House equally to his colleagues in the DUP and to other Members. The DUP made a good choice in Christopher for the position of Principal Deputy Speaker. I believe that, in the fullness of time, he would have made a great Speaker of the Assembly.

1.45 pm

On a personal level, Christopher would never pass you in the corridor without a smile or a conversation. He was clearly a devoted and proud father and husband. I am father of young children myself, and we spoke frequently about the challenges and importance of balancing a very demanding public life as an MLA with family life. Christopher was a good man. I extend my thoughts and prayers to his family and his colleagues in the DUP. Rest in peace.

Mr Storey: How true it is that we:

"know not what shall be on the morrow".

Little did any of us know, when we left the Chamber last week, that we would be brought back in the circumstances that we are in today. Sadly, it is not the first time that we, as an Assembly, have had reason to remember one of us who has passed away. Indeed, I was just thinking before I came into the Chamber of those, from parties right across the Chamber, who served as an MLA and are no longer with us. I could not help think of one of those dear friends who passed away 15 years ago: my dear friend George Dawson. Members, it is a reminder to us all that life is very short: for Christopher, it was only 39 years; for George, it was 47 years; for John Dallat and many others, it was a lot longer. The scripture says that our life is a vapour that:

"appears for a little time and then vanishes away."

I know that other parties look upon the DUP with some degree of suspicion. They are not sure exactly what makes us up and why we do certain things. Every morning, when we meet in the Building, we have the reading of scripture and the offering of prayer. This morning, I was given the privilege of leading our party group in that devotion. I quoted from a verse in Luke's Gospel concerning an old man named Simeon. He was passing away and, when handed the new Christ child in the temple in Jerusalem, said:

"Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation."

So confident was Simeon that he held in his hands the one who was, to him, the joy of all Israel that he could, with confidence, say, "I can now make my journey. I can now depart with peace from the scene of time".

It is a joy to us all to hear the comments about our colleague and friend, Christopher Stalford. All that has been said about him, and much more, is true. The bit that worries me most is the comment about the dry Ryvita; that was probably said more about his colleagues than anybody else, because that is how he was. [Laughter.]

If you go up to the third floor, you will find a room with Christopher's name on it: it is like a museum. I took one of my colleagues into the room to let them see some of the memorabilia that is in there. There are photographs of a very young Christopher Stalford, with his Orange collarette, being interviewed by a camera crew at the field in Finaghy. There is another one of a very, very young Christopher Stalford, which is signed by — and he took great joy in this — the late Lord Bannside, Dr Paisley. There is a whole array of books on Churchill and, yes, Margaret Thatcher, and others. That is a reflection of who he was.

I always benefited from his ability to write press statements when he worked in party headquarters. It proves the point that we are not all as capable as people think that we are and that we always have to depend on someone else. He had a sharpness about what he wanted to say, or wanted you to say, on behalf of the party.

What will be the lasting legacy and memory of Christopher Stalford? For his family, it will be that of a devoted father, son, brother, uncle and friend, but, for us, it will be that of someone whom you knew was always with you. William and I would sit in the group meeting, and many's a time it was comical to hear Christopher wanting to defend a particular issue and William making a comment that would probably challenge it, but it was done in such a way that there was never hurt or insult, because he had compassion and a conviction in his heart. I believe, however, that the lasting legacy of Christopher Stalford will be this: that he had a personal faith and that he did not fear what the future would bring. When we come into the Chamber, the Speaker, rightly, asks us to stand in reflection for a period. Today ought to be a time of reflection for us all, because there is but a step between us and eternity.

I will say a word of thanks to colleagues from different parties who contacted us over the weekend. It is genuinely appreciated. I also received a text from a colleague in the Dáil to say how sad that he was to hear of the passing of Christopher Stalford. Colleagues, let today be an opportunity for us all to remember that, one day, it will be our memorial. One day, it will be about us. Will we leave the same legacy and the same epitaph that Christopher Stalford has left? I trust that we will, by the grace of God.

Ms Sheerin: There is not much that I can say about Christopher that has not already been said today, but I will add my own tribute, given the shock and sadness with which I met the news yesterday. I have been here for only a couple of years, and I knew Christopher for only a short time. I sat on two Committees with him. Indeed, I chaired one of them, and I have no doubt that the conversation to which Mike referred related to my chairing style, to what Christopher would like to correct there and to what Standing Order he might have found to correct me.

I have no doubt that we were polar opposites. He probably regarded some of my, perhaps, disrespect for the formalities of this place with complete bewilderment. I was totally bemused by the way in which he deferred to the formalities of Stormont. Whatever cross word that he gave you in the Chamber, however, and he was fond of the rough and tumble of politics, to which he often referred, you knew that, when you met him outside, you would be met with warmth, a bit of craic, good humour and a genuine, friendly comment. Wherever you met him, he would never pass you, and he would always have something kind to say.

I convey my deepest sympathies to his wife, Laura, his four wee children, whom he never stopped talking about, all his colleagues in the DUP and his wider family circle. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.

Mrs Cameron: I will be very brief. Today is a very sad day, as the Assembly meets without the talented young man who was our Principal Deputy Speaker in this place. Christopher Stalford will be greatly missed within the DUP family.

Christopher was fiercely loyal to his constituents in South Belfast. He excelled in his role in the Speaker's Chair. He was forthright and witty, and he had a great sense of humour, a compassion for all and an ability beyond his 39 years.

Christopher never shied away from his own views on any matter, and he was hugely respected by all in the Assembly. That is evident from the numerous tributes from across the parties today.

Today, our thoughts are primarily with Christopher's adored family: his wife, Laura, his four beautiful children — Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail — his mother, his stepfather and the wider family circle. While we grieve and continue in a state of shock at the loss of Christopher to the House and to our ranks, how much more we feel for his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with that family today as they take a step forward into the future without Christopher Stalford.

Mr Gildernew: I also extend my condolences to Christopher's family at this time. What they are going through is unimaginable.

My first time meeting Christopher in the Assembly was at one of the ambassadorial dinners that took place here. To be honest, I had been following Christopher for many years before that because, as William said when he called him "Tory Boy", he seemed to have almost dropped fully formed into the political world, ready to hit the ground running. He wore that persona, which was so large, so lightly. For many years, I had followed him with interest and with a sort of fascination. I also noted that, over many years, as Paul Givan said, he often was the person who would go out in difficult times, which we all have, to defend his position or his party as required.

On the occasion that we met the ambassador, despite being much younger, he was the political veteran, but he immediately put me at ease. That was an icebreaker, and after that he never passed me in the corridors of this Building or in the car park without stopping for at least a few seconds for a conversation. He always made a point of stopping to speak, and I always appreciated that deeply.

He had the ability to make a point without making an enemy or making it hurt, and he engaged in the rough and tumble without ever making it personal. As someone said earlier, when Christopher made an intervention in your speech, you knew that you had better be on your game because it was going to be a good one and one that you were going to have to respond to.

One of the other places where I met Christopher, and deeply appreciated meeting him, was at the Ulster final between Donegal and Fermanagh in 2018, to which he accompanied Arlene Foster. That was huge measure of Christopher as a leader, and he was a leader. He was prepared to take risks and to stretch himself. I could think of nothing during that entire game other than how bad a game of football it was. I was thinking, "We'll never get him back here with this display".

His role as Principal Deputy Speaker has been mentioned. He was uniquely suited to and talented at that role, and he would have been a Speaker here in the future. Claire Sugden mentioned him potentially being a Speaker at Westminster, and he would certainly have been capable of that as well. I would have loved to see him as a Speaker in the Dáil because they would not have known what hit them. He would have rattled cages and ruffled feathers in his own imitable way that would have left a mark. To be quite honest and frank, us Nordies could have been doing with him there at an odd time as well.

Christopher is a loss to the Assembly. The one word that keeps occurring to me when I think about him is "smiling", because, every time that I saw Christopher, whether it was across the Chamber, in the Chair or outside, I came away with a smile from meeting him. He is a huge loss to us. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam. May he rest in peace.

Mr Poots: The first time that I came across Christopher Stalford was at one of our party conferences. He turned up, about 15 years of age, with blond, mullet-style hair and a three-piece suit, and I said, "Wow, what's this kid about?" He had a very nice young lady on his arm that day, and that young lady, Laura, has been with him ever since. We pay our tributes to Christopher but think today of Laura and their four lovely children: Trinity, Cameron, Oliver and Abigail.

Those folks were the ones who were most precious to him, as well as his Mum, Karen, his stepfather, Eric, and his sister, Angela.

2.00 pm

Christopher was very proud that Dr Paisley married him and dedicated his four children. When it came to politics, Christopher had the attitude that he would be a husband, father and son first. He did that and ensured that he spent that time with his family. The last Facebook post that Christopher put up was on Saturday, and he was out with his four children. People might not know this, but Christopher loved baking and cooking, and he loved telling people how he did it. He used to make Christmas puddings and give them away. He did that cooking with his children. He just loved spending time with his children. I believe that a lot of that was due to the loss of his father at such a young age. He recognised the need to spend quality time with your family. That is the first thing that I recognised in Christopher before anything to do with politics: he was a family man first. Politics was a passion, and it was his career, but it was secondary to the family.

He may have appeared to be the stuffy guy in a three-piece suit or the country gent in his tweed jacket, but he was neither. He was a working-class lad, who was brought up by a single mother who lost her husband in very difficult circumstances. He was very bright and articulate. He was offered a place at the University of St Andrews, but he turned it down, as he wanted to stay here. He could have gone far in many careers beyond politics, but there was never going to be any career other than politics for Christopher. He based his office in Sandy Row, and people used that office in their droves. They were mainly working-class people from loyalist backgrounds but not exclusively so. They used that office in their droves because they needed it. His team — I have to mention them — Sarah, Tracy, Paul and formerly Nathan were all hugely supportive to Christopher in establishing that office and making it operational. It was a very busy constituency office and the people in it were regularly out knocking on doors. That local community will really miss that.

Our hearts go out to the family today. They are very precious to us. Christopher's wife's nanny, Granny May, died last year, and some of you who were on Belfast council knew Granny May. Sometimes, when you saw Christopher coming, you wondered whether it was Laura he was going with or Granny May. Granny May was one of the founders of the DUP, and Christopher just loved talking politics with her. She took him to all the rallies, events, conferences and everything else because he could not drive until he was nearly 30. She took him to all those events, and, of course, he had the bonus of having Laura there with him while Granny May was escorting him about. He was able to talk politics and do his dating at the same time.

We have lost a one-off in Christopher Stalford. He was slightly eccentric and sometimes very irritating, but he was always very endearing. He and I had many an argument, but we never broke up without retaining our friendship. That is critical for everybody who is engaged in politics. It is an environment where people fight and argue with each other a lot, but it should never lead to a point where you end up falling out with each other. Christopher was the epitome of that. He argued vehemently for his cause, but he maintained relationships with people. That is critical.

We wish his family well at this time. We know that the God of all comfort will be with them. They are a family of strong faith. Their greatest comfort is that Christopher heard the gospel when he was young and received the Lord Jesus Christ as his saviour in a personal capacity. That will be of huge comfort to that family for many years to come. They know that they will meet again, should they make the same decision.

Mr Buckley: The most painful goodbyes are the ones that are never said. For so many of us here today, we never conceived that our most recent conversations with Christopher would be our last. As I stand here, there really are no words and no form of contribution that can sum up the pain and loss that each Member in the House feels today, because there is so much that can be said about such a short life and the impact that it left on so many people. It is fair to say that you did not truly know Christopher Stalford unless you have your own personal story about him, such was the nature of the man. He had a sharp wit and an intelligent mind the likes of which the Assembly Chamber, sadly, rarely sees.

Christopher was born for political theatre, both inside this Chamber and outside it. He loved it and marvelled at it, whether it was with his sparring partner from South Belfast Mr O'Toole or, outside this Chamber, with his sparring partner William Humphrey. I suppose that I am unique in that I faced it on both sides. Whilst Christopher and I had our debates inside and outside this Chamber, there was one occasion when we had a rare free vote. Christopher and I both forcefully put our points of view across outside this Chamber, and, when we came in, I knew that I had to have my wits about me because Christopher was always prepared for an intervention. As I prepared for that debate, I said, "I am going to stay close to Christopher in this debate", and I remember going to the Clerks and making sure that my name was on the speaking order after Christopher's. My colleague Peter Weir had come to me beforehand and said, "Let's not have any interventions between each other on this. I will have my say and you have yours". I said, "No problem, Peter". I did not say the same for Christopher. I sat down beside him, and he made the mistake of allowing me an intervention — such was the back and forward. He loved the fact that colleagues brought this up to him. When it came to my turn and Christopher tried to intervene, I did not let him, but he got his own back, because, when a Member from a different party spoke next, Christopher asked for an intervention and it was all about me. That was his way of subverting this place and its customs and practice.

Christopher's proudest moment in this Chamber was becoming Principal Deputy Speaker. He took huge pride in his working-class roots, and reaching that seat was truly special to him. I remember, a week after he became Principal Deputy Speaker — I did not know this at the time — he said, "Come on, brother, and see my new office". Many of us have maybe frequented Christopher's office just off the main Speaker's office. He showed me around, and he had the walls donned with beautiful royal portraits that he had gathered up from around this place. He said, "But, brother, that is not the best of it. Wait until you see this", and he opened a cabinet and there was a copy of Erskine May. For anybody who does not know what Erskine May is, it is the encyclopedia for political procedure and debate. That was Christopher Stalford in a nutshell.

He was a great travel companion. I had the honour of travelling far and wide with him on council trips and, indeed, on those to do with this Chamber. I know that colleagues from other political parties will feel the same, but how true is it that, in politics, the people whom you walk alongside become a part of you without you even realising it at the time? In this instance, a man has gone far too soon. Life is so feeble and fleeting, and the tragic passing of our dear friend Christopher serves as a reminder that time spent in the presence of friends and family is so precious. My heart goes out to Laura, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron, Abigail, the wider Stalford family and, indeed, his staff and every person whose heart he touched. Our thoughts are with you, and we will continue to pray for you in the days that lie ahead. I trust that what has been said in this place today and the record of tributes from far and wide across the political spectrum will, in the years to come, be a lasting tribute to the life of Christopher Stalford.

In closing, as my colleague Mervyn Storey said, Christopher had a firm faith. As scriptures say, life is a vapour:

"that appears for a little while and then vanishes away."

We in the House and, indeed, in the party will miss that unforgettable vapour, his enduring spirit and his undeniable wit and charm.

Mr Easton: I wish to pass on my deepest condolences to Laura and the four children and to the Democratic Unionist Party. Christopher was born to be a politician. All of us knew how passionate he was about South Belfast and the people whom he represented. He was a wonderful individual. He had a mischievous side to him as well, which I will touch on in a wee second. He was articulate, intelligent, humorous and loyal to the DUP, his friends, the Orange Order and Ulster. He was a loyal Ulsterman. He also had his faith, which was very important to him.

I knew Christopher for over 20 years. When Peter Weir joined the DUP, I came to know Christopher, because he worked for Peter in the office. One side to Christopher that you maybe did not see was his mischievous side. One day when we were out canvassing for Peter for the 2003 Assembly election, it was pouring with rain, and Christopher and I had been left to cover an area on our own. Christopher turned round to me and said, "Stuff this. Let's go and get a pint of Guinness", so we went and got a pint of Guinness and put the world to rights. Unfortunately, Peter, that happened a few times, so I apologise to you. [Laughter.]

Christopher was a wonderful character and an eccentric. He was somebody who, if you were walking past his room, would have called you in, sat you down and chatted away to you. He was a wonderful man, and we will all really miss him. For me, the most important thing to remember about Christopher is that he had his Christian faith. That is why I know, with some comfort, that one day I will meet him again.

Ms Bunting: Sadly, not for the first time in relatively recent times, I rise as DUP Chief Whip of an Assembly team stricken with unimaginable grief. It seems all too soon since we last stood here paying tribute to another of our own: Mr Gordon Dunne. Today, again, we stand, our hearts filled with sadness; this time for Christopher. He was a big character, with a huge personality, a wide smile, a loud and hearty laugh and a quick wit. There were caustic put-downs and, yes, withering glances, as has been mentioned — and those were just at us. He was also sensitive, a worrier, compassionate, kind, great company and so very bright and able.

In life, you never know what a day will bring, and yesterday brought us such terrible news: a bright light was snuffed out. As a team, we are reeling, we are in a state of shock, and we are struggling to take in this immense loss. As everyone here will know, the grief comes in waves, interspersed with thoughts that this just cannot be real. However we may feel, as has been said, it pales into insignificance when we consider Christopher's family.

No words will ever be adequate or sufficiently eloquent to express and convey to them how our hearts break for them as they try to go on.

2.15 pm

We are grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and to our colleagues across the House for their forbearance, understanding and condolences today and for the messages that they have sent and calls that they have made to each of us. They are greatly appreciated.

I have known Christopher for over 20 years, as have most of us. Did we have our spats? Yeah, we did, but we would say what we had to say and then move on with a laugh and a hug. That was the mark of such a remarkable and unique man. His mischievous laugh is still ringing in my head. He was my constituent — boy, did he let me know it


— and he was my colleague, but Christopher Stalford was my friend, and I will miss him. We will miss him deeply.

Northern Ireland has lost a strong and gifted advocate, Her Majesty has lost her most devoted subject, and we have lost a friend, but our hearts are with four young children who have lost a daddy; a young woman who has lost her soulmate; a mum who has lost the apple of her eye and who will have to bury her child; and siblings who have lost their beloved brother. For Laura, Trinity, Oliver, Cameron, Abigail, Karen, Eric, Angela, Erica and Glen, I pray Jehovah jireh — the Lord our provider — not for material things, but in the context of the most profound loss that a person can face: the loss of a loved one. I pray that the Lord will draw near to them and provide them with comfort, solace, succour and the grace that they need to get through. I pray that they will be carried through, hour by hour and day by day, in this time of grief by those who love them; by the happy memories that they made together; and by their knowledge that he is with his Saviour. We are proud to have known Christopher, and our lives are richer and blessed because we had him with us.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the formal tributes. I thank all Members for their important contributions this afternoon. As a mark of respect, we will stand for a minute's silence in honour of Mr Christopher Stalford, after which today's sitting will be adjourned. Please be still.

Members observed one minute's silence.

Adjourned at 2.19 pm.

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