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mark of respect Mourners in Northern Ireland attend funeral of DUP MLA Christopher Stalford

The 39-year-old DUP MLA died suddenly at his home last Saturday, leaving his wife Laura and his four children

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Mr Stalford’s wife Laura is comfored as she arrives at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in south Belfast this afternoon for the funeral service of her late husband. Pic Conor McCaughley

Mr Stalford’s wife Laura is comfored as she arrives at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in south Belfast this afternoon for the funeral service of her late husband. Pic Conor McCaughley

Mr Stalford’s wife Laura is comfored as she arrives at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in south Belfast this afternoon for the funeral service of her late husband. Pic Conor McCaughley

A fractured DUP united in grief today as they said a final farewell to their friend and party colleague Christopher Stalford.

Mourners from all political parties arrived at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in south Belfast this afternoon to pay their respects to the man who was described as “humble, forgiving, loving and kind”.

The 39-year-old DUP MLA died suddenly at his home last Saturday, leaving his wife Laura and his four children – Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and four-year-old Abigail – devastated.

His children attended the service, but arrived and left separately from their mum and gran who wanted to spare them from the media presence outside.

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Mr Stalford died suddenly, aged only 39, last Saturday

Mr Stalford died suddenly, aged only 39, last Saturday

Mr Stalford died suddenly, aged only 39, last Saturday

At the sombre funeral, Minister Rev Marty Gray paid tribute to Mr Stalford as a family man who put his four children ahead of his career.

“Christopher was a dad. And what a dad he became. Christopher adored his children. Trinity, Oliver, Cameron and Abigail were the apple of his eye.

“He loved being with them and loved being their daddy. He took them to meetings in [Belfast] City Hall, even when he didn’t need to. He took them out for walks and for adventures all over the place. He drove them everywhere.

“Christopher loved being a dad and always aimed never to let his career get in the way of him being a great father.

“To Christopher, his family was everything. He loved being with Laura and the kids. He loved being with [siblings] Karen and Eric and Angela and Erica and Glen. Christopher was a man for whom family was everything,” he told the congregation.

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An emotional Edwin Poots leaves the funeral of Christopher Stalford DUP MLA at Presbyterian Church, Belfast. Pic: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

An emotional Edwin Poots leaves the funeral of Christopher Stalford DUP MLA at Presbyterian Church, Belfast. Pic: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

An emotional Edwin Poots leaves the funeral of Christopher Stalford DUP MLA at Presbyterian Church, Belfast. Pic: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

The minister recalled how Christopher's children asked to pray when they were told the news that their young lives had been changed forever, a tragedy they will struggle to understand and accept.

“After Laura told the children what had happened, Cameron suggested that they pray. And each of them did. Each child prayed out loud giving thanks to God for their dad’s life and thanks that he was now in heaven,” he revealed.

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Mourners, who included former DUP leader Peter Robinson and current leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, were told Christopher was prepared for death despite his young age and what should have been a long and happy life ahead.

“Christopher had so many ambitions for the future. Political ambitions. Spiritual ambitions. Family ambitions,” said Rev Gray.

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Fergus O’Dowd during the Funeral for DUP MLA Christopher Stalford at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Saturday. Pic: Conor McCaughley

Fergus O’Dowd during the Funeral for DUP MLA Christopher Stalford at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Saturday. Pic: Conor McCaughley

Fergus O’Dowd during the Funeral for DUP MLA Christopher Stalford at Ravenhill Presbyterian Church in Belfast on Saturday. Pic: Conor McCaughley

“We grieve for the years ahead he will not see, and for the ambitions. Christopher’s death was very sudden. But he was prepared for it. Because he lived each day trusting Jesus as the forgiver of his sins.

“Christopher was humble, forgiving, faithful, funny, intelligent, loving, kind. He was flawed like all of us, but relying on Jesus for forgiveness.

“He was a man aware of the reality of death. A man prepared for death. And a man who lived a life that was full. We give thanks to God today for the life of Christopher Stalford.”

North Belfast MLA William Humphrey told mourners the DUP had lost a most able and valued colleague.

“An outstanding young life has been taken far too soon. He was a strong, articulate and consummate performer. He was unique, a true character with a huge intellect, an acerbic wit with an infectious laugh. He was a man of considerable talent,” he said.

DUP MLAs and MPs, including former First Minister Paul Givan, Mervyn Storey, Ian Paisley Jnr and Gregory Campbell were among the first to arrive at the service, stopping to look at two canvas posters of the deceased which had been tied to the railings that read ‘Stalford 1’ – ready for the Assembly election he was due to contest on May 5.

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and his Sinn Féin party colleagues John O’Dowd and Deirdre Hargey attended.

Also at the service was Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, TUV leader Jim Allister, Alliance leader Naomi Long, SDLP MP Claire Hanna, PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton and the grand secretary of the Orange Order, the Rev Mervyn Gibson. Leading loyalist Jackie McDonald was also among the invited guests.

After the service Mr Stalford’s remains were carried a brief way by family and friends led by a lone piper. The DUP’s Edwin Poots carried the coffin on behalf of his party.

A floral display reading ‘Daddy’ lay at the side of his coffin as it made its way to Ballygowan Free Presbyterian Church Graveyard for a private burial.

Widow Laura walked behind the hearse ashen-faced, holding the hand of her visibly upset mother-in-law Karen.

Laura also paid tribute to her childhood sweetheart she shared her life with since they were just 16 years old.

“I know when the children look back, they will be so proud of their daddy they described as ‘the best dad in the world’.”

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