The First and Deputy First Ministers yesterday led tributes to the MLA David McClarty, who died yesterday morning after battling cancer for more than a year.
The East Londonderry Assemblyman, who nine months ago spoke to the News Letter about his hope that he had beaten the disease and would be returning to Stormont,
The 63-year-old spent most of his political life in the Ulster Unionist Party before leaving after the party deselected him in 2011. He stood as an independent and went on to win a seat at the expense of his former party.
Mr McClarty’s funeral is expected to take place next Tuesday at noon from Killowen Parish Church in Coleraine, of which he was a long and committed member.
Coleraine UUP councillor William McCandless, who had known Mr McClarty since they were both teenagers, said that the late MLA’s widow, Norma, was “totally devastated”.
Cllr McCandless, who visited the family home yesterday,said that the couple had been childhood sweethearts who were a “very strong family couple”.
He said: “Norma has a very strong faith, as had David, which is carrying her through. David accepted his illness with great fortitude.”
Mr McClarty, who used social media regularly, last posted on his Facebook page on Tuesday to say that he was “delighted to propose Claire Sugden [his Stormont assistant who succeeded him when he left the council] as the first ever candidate for the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council for Coleraine”.
The First Minister described Mr McClarty as “a highly respected member of the Assembly and he will be greatly missed. He was one of our longest serving MLAs and worked tirelessly to help all of those he served”.
Peter Robinson added that he was “ a man of great decency, honour and integrity”.
The deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, said: “We have been concerned about David’s health for some time and it was with great sadness I learned of his passing. His family and friends are in my thoughts and prayers.”
Assembly Speaker Willie Hay said: “I know I speak on behalf of all members of the Assembly when I say that the loss of David McClarty is a cause of heartfelt sorrow among all of us.”
The Electoral Office said that Mr McClarty had left a list of nominees to fill his seat as an independent MLA in the event of his death.
The Electoral Office said that once it was formally notified of his death by the Assembly Speaker, it would begin contacting those on the list.
There will only be a by-election if none of the nominees agree to take the seat.
Last August, as he appeared to be getting better, Mr McClarty told the News Letter how at the beginning of his treatment for cancer he had arrived at the hospital in “trepidation”.
The father of two and grandfather of three told how, as he began to regain strength, “being able to wash myself was a major achievement”
NI21 leader Basil McCrea said that Mr McClarty was “a model politician”.
“In the cynical and very divisive worlds of politics this was a rarity - he was a really good man and I know he will be sorely missed.”
David Harding, the Mayor of Coleraine, where from 1989 until last year Mr McClarty was a councillor, said: “A great sadness has fallen on the Borough with the passing of David McClarty.” It was Mr Harding who three years ago was involved in a candid conversation about Mr McClarty with the then local UUP association chairman Norman Hillis. Unknown to them, they inadvertently recorded part of it onto Mr McClarty’s voicemail.
In the conversation, Mr Hillis variously described him as “a spent force”, “toast” and “burnt-out”. After the call became public, Mr Hillis said: “I do not regret anything that I said”.
Last night the Coleraine division of the UUP said it was “deeply saddened at the untimely death of David McClarty MLA” and described him as “a man of the people; highly respected by all sections of the community”.
And former UUP deputy chairman Terry Wright said that in the face of his illness Mr McClarty had “communicated a positive courage grounded in his faith”.
He added: “I last met with him just before his diagnosis and in discussions about politics as they were unfolding within Northern Ireland he shared his concerns about what he saw as worsening relations resulting from disagreements on contentious issues.”