Ruth Dudley Edwards: Christopher Stalford showed us that kindness matters

Mick Fealty of the invaluable website sluggerotoole.com wrote for so many of us on Sunday after hearing the terrible news.

By Ruth Dudley Edwards
Tuesday, 22nd February 2022, 1:54 am
Updated Tuesday, 22nd February 2022, 2:07 am
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

“The DUP MLA Christopher Stalford was one of the good guys. He was always sincere in his politics, proud of the fact he’d always been a DUP man, but typical of a lot of later generation politicians in Northern Ireland who wanted to see it become a better place.

“Not least for his four kids, who anyone with eyes to see could tell he loved deeply and with great tenderness.”

Christopher’s long-standing friend and DUP colleague Peter Weir MLA wrote in this newspaper yesterday: “The breath of tributes paid to Christopher is a measure of the respect he engendered throughout the political world and beyond.”

Christopher Stalford at the Brexit vote count in Belfast in 2016. Reactions to his untimely death came from the hearts of many unexpected sources

And truly, the reactions to his sudden and untimely death came from the hearts of many unexpected sources.

“We were friends,” said Naomi Long, expressing her “shock and sadness”.

When a clutch of trolls ignorantly and arrogantly attacked a biblical quote in the tweet from the DUP’s devastated Carla Lockhart — whose last vehement criticism of the Alliance Party had been only a few days before — Long rushed to her defence: “Please, stop attacking @carlalockhart over her tweet, today of all days. She is grieving. It’s Philippians 1v23, about the faithful being torn between service in this life and being with Christ in eternity. It’s a very common Christian quote, which his family will understand.”

And when Sam McBride, no friend to the DUP, described those tweets as “obscene”, Colum Eastwood, who had already cancelled the SDLP spring conference as a mark of respect to Christopher, responded with: “It’s disgusting, Sam, and shows how this platform can be so poisonous ... Solidarity with @carlalockhart”.

I barely knew Christopher Stalford personally, but we were Facebook friends and I found him exceptionally open minded, civil and pleasant in debates.

I get a lot of stick because I don’t censor any opinions or speech on my Facebook page, which annoys many people who think views they think wrong should be suppressed.

I can’t remember what the dispute was about on an occasion when Christopher came strongly to my aid by saying that though he had been deeply upset by some things I had said about the Reverend Ian Paisley — whom he revered and whom I had called among other things “a roaring bigot” — like everyone else, I was entitled to my point of view.

But I never forgot our meeting in December 2017, just before we sat on a panel together on BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight. I had arrived punctually, expecting to be put in a green room with the other panellists, only to find we were separated.

I was alone in a depressing room anticipating yet another occasion when absolutely no one would agree with me and there would be the usual insults, when the door opened and in came Christopher.

I got up with my hand out, he gave me a hug and said he had just come to say hello and how lovely it was to meet properly.

It was an unexpected and thoughtful act of kindness that meant a lot to me.

And, as I’ve learned since Sunday, it was very typical.

Before I settled to watch the Stormont tributes to Christopher yesterday, I read posts on social media from a staggering range of people.

One Facebook post was from a friend who is so belligerent and snide on-line to almost everyone who is pro-union, and hates the DUP with such a passion, that I debate with him only in real life.

“A lovely man,” he wrote. “I still remember the day we met. We had been trading words on social media already when I was going in to City Hall on foot as he was coming out in the car.

“He wound down the window and said something like ’Willis McBriar, I presume’ and stuck out his hand. I shook it of course. A true gent.”

As Tim McGarry said yesterday: “Twitter can often be a bile-ridden cesspit but the heartfelt tributes from all sides to Christopher Stalford are a reminder of our common decency.”

As were the tributes at Stormont to the decency, fair-mindedness, intelligence, articulacy, compassion and wit of a man who laughed at himself, held no grudges and though utterly faithful to his own tradition and his own political and religious certainties, was respectful of those of others.

Over the mesmerising two hours and twenty minutes, I was staggered by the love, respect and warmth from nationalists, republicans, unionists and even People Before Profit, for this Orangeman, Paisleyite, monarchist and Thatcherite.

“I never, ever passed him in the corridor of this House or out in the park”, said Sinn Fein’s Colm Gildernew, “that he didn’t stop for at least a few seconds, a few minutes, for a conversation.”

Kindness matters.

For the first time ever, I was moved by a tweet from Michelle O’Neill: “Sitting at home (due to covid) watching the tributes to Christopher Stalford. I’m struck by the shared sense of loss across the political spectrum.

“I am reminded that there is far more that united us than divides us.

“Rest in peace Christopher.”

What a loss this good guy is to family, friends, colleagues and Northern Ireland.