Christopher Stalford: 'I don't see myself as a future DUP leader. I'm an Arlene 'ultra'
The most personal and probing interviews: Christopher Stalford, South Belfast MLA, on dealing with vile online abuse... and why he can't walk past charity shops.
Q. You're 34 and married to former dental nurse Laura (34), with whom you have three children, Trinity (six), Oliver (five) and Cameron (three). How did you meet?
A. We went to Sunday School together and started going out when we were 15. On our first date, I took her to a cafe and sprayed a sachet of tomato sauce all over her, but she forgave me.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your parents?
A. Karen (52) is a former shop assistant who gave that up to look after us when my daddy, Clifford, died at 26 from a bleed on his brain. I was seven and, for a time, it was just me, mummy and Angela. Mummy married again and had two more children, but it was a rough time. I remember very little about my father, but I remember his funeral. My step-father, Eric (51), a painter and decorator, is a very good person and a hard worker who looked after us.
Q. And what about your siblings?
A. Angela (31) works in the Credit Union, Erica (27) works in a day nursery looking after children and Glen (23) is an accountant at PWC.
Q. What was your childhood like?
A. I was born in Annadale Flats and, with the exception of losing my father, I had a happy childhood. I remember family holidays caravanning in Newcastle. When you've four children in a house, they're going to fight, but we all roped along well.
Angela still gives me grief about the time we were at the pitch and putt in Donaghadee. She was standing behind me and I didn't see her. My putting iron connected with her nose and there was blood gushing from it. I told her I'd give her a pound if she didn't tell mummy.
That's the worst thing I've ever done.
Otherwise, my life when growing up revolved very much around the church, Boys Brigade and choir.
Q. You attended Ulidia Primary School (now closed), Nettlefield Primary School, Wellington College and Queen's. What did you study?
A. Politics and history. I remember Wellington College with fondness. It was a brilliant school - you were challenged to think for yourself. My politics teacher, Mr Smilie, would debate and argue things. One time he wrote the comments on an essay of mine in orange ink, saying he hoped I appreciated the colour, and I responded by writing the next essay in green. I don't think direct rule ministers understand the concept of a working-class grammar school.
Q. Is integrated education the way forward here?
A. Parents should have the right to chose how their children are educated. I think we should have an entirely integrated system of education - a single school in which people can pursue whatever faith they want to.
It's absurd that we have a Catholic school and a Protestant school. If that was suggested about universities, you'd be laughed out of town. We should have a single schooling system that allows for difference and can accommodate difference through separate arrangements for assembly and things. People should be able to opt out of assembly as well.
Q. Can you give us a brief resume of your career?
A. After graduation, I worked in Jim Allister's European office three days a week, and Peter Weir's Bangor office the other two. I then moved to the DUP press office for six years and then onto the policy unit. In 2005, I was elected to Belfast City Council aged 22, the youngest person on the council.
I ran for the Assembly in 2007 but didn't get in. I was re-elected to the council in 2011 and again in 2014. I was elected to Stormont for the first time in 2016 and re-elected this year.
Q. What made you go into politics?
A. I have always been interested. I looked around at some of the public representatives that we had and thought that I could do the job.
Q. Some see you as a future DUP leader. Do you?
A. No. I'm an Arlene ultra. I think she's doing a fantastic job. She is the foremost communicator in politics and she's able to connect with people. I hope Arlene Foster is still leader of the DUP in 30 years' time.
Q. What was it like working for Jim Allister, and were you disappointed when he left the DUP?
A. He's a gentleman. I wasn't entirely surprised when he left, but I was disappointed. He left in 2007 and that's the primary reason why we went our separate ways.
Q. Apart from your father, have you lost anyone close to you?
A. I remember when my granny, Isobel, died from a heart attack in 1999. She was about 60. All of a sudden, she was just gone. It was a Sunday evening and I remember coming home from church and my mother telling me. My granny never got over daddy dying - you'd just have to mention his name.
I was very close to her. When she died, I was devastated. She was an Orange Lily and would've had a Union Jack apron and a flag in either hand on the Twelfth. She lived in Tigers Bay and was a big supporter of Nigel Dodds. I regret that she never got to see me elected and never met her great-grandchildren. Her death, when I was 17, probably hit me harder than the death of my father because when you're seven you don't really take these things in.
Q. And what about death? Does it frighten you?
A. No, because, as a Christian, I believe that when we die, if we have faith in Christ, then we go to Heaven. But that doesn't mean I would embrace it willingly.
Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?
A. I believe in God and I'm a practising Christian. It's a very important part of my life. I don't think that people of faith should be required to hide that - it should be celebrated and encouraged.
Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?
A. David McCann, who writes for Slugger O'Toole. He comes at things from a very different perspective to me, but it's useful to have that and understand better where people are coming from. Plus, he's good at raking me.
Q. How do you relax outside politics?
A. About four years ago, I bought a record player at a jumble sale, so I've been spending time going round charity shops pulling together old records. On a Sunday afternoon, I sit and listen to them. Sunday is precious for spending time as a family. We have Sunday dinner sitting round the table in each other's company because it's important. I wouldn't want my children to say I put politics in front of them.
Q. What's the biggest mistake you've ever made?
A. Not continuing my education. I'd have liked to have qualified as a politics or history teacher. When you come from a background like mine, where you don't have inherited wealth, the key to advancement is education.
Q. And how do you feel about social media?
A. I wouldn't want my children to read abuse about me. People say it comes with the job, but I've seen some of the utter filth that has been said about Arlene Foster on Twitter, and I know her daughter can see people saying the most awful things about her mummy. It's an ideal forum for cowards because they can say awful things and effectively get away with it. I wouldn't want my children reading some of the stuff I've seen about Arlene.
Q. If you were in trouble, who's the person you would you turn to?
A. Always my wife, Laura.
Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.
A. When our first child, Trinity, came along, she was born sleeping. I rushed to the other side of the room to check that everything was okay. She opened her eyes, curled her tongue, closed them again and went back to sleep. Your whole world changes when you become a parent.
Q. And what about the worst day of your life?
A. The death of my granny, Isobel.
Q. Your Sandy Row office allegedly has links to the UDA. Does that make you uncomfortable?
A. It doesn't have links to the UDA. Belfast South Community Resources is my landlord, and at no point has anyone claimed that it's anything other than a legitimate community group.
I was criticised for paying my rent to a community group. I'd rather make a contribution to the community than to a private landlord. The people who criticised me attacked a perfectly good community organisation that's committed to positive change in the Sandy Row area.
Q. You've also taken stick for refusing to acknowledge that the Eleventh Night bonfire at Sandy Row was built too close to apartments. Can you see a time when bonfires will not be a contentious issue?
A. As a child, I used to collect material for the bonfire. It is part of where I come from. I want us to get to the point where every single person, whether unionist or nationalist, enjoys the Eleventh Night, or at least has no objection to it.
That will be achieved through conversations in communities, not by every twist and turn being played out in the media. The way in which positive change will come is by engaging the community in Sandy Row, not by looking down on them.
Q Do you wish you'd handled the bonfire situation differently? Will you ask them to build it further away next year?
A. I do hope the issues will be resolved, but the way it'll be done is not by middle-class nationalist and Alliance politicians talking down to working-class loyalists about how dreadful their culture is and how awful they've behaved. That just makes securing a positive outcome much more difficult.
Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?
A. Never get ahead of yourself, stay rooted on the ground and always treat people with respect because you could be up one day but down the next.
Q. Do you have any bad habits you'd like to share?
A. Charity shops. I can't walk past one without going in and I'll almost definitely come out with something whether it's a book, record, tie, a suit… something.
Q. Do you have or have you ever had a nickname?
A. Granny Isobel called me 'Snowy' because I had very light hair when I was a wee boy.
Q What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?
A. The monastic ruins at Nendrum on Mahee Island.
Q. What is your greatest achievement?
A. The hundreds of people I have helped as an elected representative. There's nothing more rewarding in this job than getting a result for someone.
Q. What will you do if there's no Assembly?
A. I enjoy representative politics, so if Stormont doesn't get back up and running, there's a council election in two years and I might go back to City Hall.