The Prime Minister last night paid tribute to Christopher Stalford as a “a passionate and dedicated servant of the people of South Belfast”.
Boris Johnson said he had been “very saddened to learn of the death of Christopher Stalford”, adding that his thoughts “are with the Stalford family at this very difficult time”.
Earlier, a former SDLP councillor and friend of Mr Stalford from his student days at Queen’s University has paid a heartfelt tribute to the late DUP MLA.
Writing on Facebook, former Derry councillor Mary Durkan said “there’s a special place in my heart for ‘Stalfie’ as I affectionately called him”.
"Our friendship forged at Queen's University Belfast was an unlikely one. We came from very different backgrounds, had polar opposite views on certain issues, enjoyed very different student lifestyles and moved in very different circles,” she wrote.
“I can still see Christopher, suited and booted, giving his Student Council maiden speech in Queen's University Students' Union in October 2001. It was hard to believe he was just 18.”
She said that during her term as Student’s Union President, ”what started off as calls to lodge complaints and express frustration about the Union evolved into friendly catch-up visits and cuppas in Cloisters. Christopher was brilliant company. He had me in stitches laughing without even trying. His apparently stern exterior belied his impish sense of fun and frivolity”.
She added: “We often disagreed. We challenged each other. We learned from each other. And, regardless of political viewpoints, we were never shy to admit our respect, admiration and fondness for each other.”
Another political rival described him as “a man who worked tirelessly for his community and country” following his death aged just 39.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said it was “absolutely tragic and shocking” news and will be felt by everyone who works at Stormont.
“In addition to his duties as an MLA, Christopher Stalford was a Principal Deputy Speaker and his role was to ensure the smooth running of the business of the Chamber, which he did expertly and with good humour,” he said.
“I worked with Christopher on many occasions and although we had differing political views we never traded an angry word. He was someone I liked, respected and who worked tirelessly for his community and country.”
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill also spoke of her and her party’s “sincere sadness” at the news.
“His wife Laura and their four children are foremost in our thoughts and prayers this morning as they grieve the heartbreaking loss of a husband and father,” she said.
“We have worked with Christopher over many years since he entered political life first as a city councillor, and then Assembly member for South Belfast.
“His friends and colleagues throughout the world of politics will miss his political contribution, and his constituents his local efforts and leadership across South Belfast.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he knew Mr Stalford for more than 20 years and was “shocked” by the news. He paid tribute to “a decent and dedicated public servant”.
Mr Eastwood postponed the SDLP Spring Conference following the news. He added: “Today is a day for political parties to set aside enmity and terse words and to remember that we are all people working hard and doing our best to serve the interests of the people we represent. Christopher Stalford was someone who did just that.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said, despite her politics being radically different from Mr Stalford’s, she had a “warm personal friendship” with him.
“Just this week, we discussed his eldest child’s school transfer and it is difficult to put into words my shock, sadness and devastation just days later we are discussing his passing,” she said.
TUV leader Jim Allister, who Mr Stalford had once worked for, said: “Words are not adequate to express the shock and deep sadness I feel at the death of Christopher Stalford.”