Colleagues pay tribute to Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close
FORMER Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close has been described by party leader Naomi Long as a "straight talker and a fierce debater".
The former MLA-turned-political commentator died today following a short illness.
It is understood the 71-year-old had liver cancer.
Mr Close, a former mayor of Lisburn, served as an assembly member for Lagan Valley from 1998 until 2007.
Over three decades he held a number of roles in Alliance, including party chair between 1981 and 1982 and deputy leader from 1991 until 2001.
He retired from politics in 2006, having contested 20 elections over a 33-year period. Post-retirement he became a regular contributor to a range of political programmes on the broadcast media.
Mrs Long said Mr Close was deputy leader when she joined the party and was "one of the most encouraging voices in helping me do so".
"People didn’t always like the message Seamus was giving but respected the fact he was a straight talker and a fierce debater – he was an astute politician who was an advocate for ordinary people," she said.
"He put in the hard yards in negotiations, including leading to the Good Friday Agreement, but never lost the energy he had for helping people and creating a shared future for Northern Ireland."
The East Belfast MLA said she had a huge affection for Mr Close and was "genuinely really sad" to learn of his passing.
"While his politics was important to him, his family were always the priority for Seamus, and my thoughts are with them today," she said.
Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn, who succeeded Mr Close as a Stormont representative, said it was a "sad day for everyone in Alliance".
“Not only was Seamus a close friend in politics but he remained my best friend after his retirement," he said.
"It is a sad day for everyone in the party but particularly the Lagan Valley Association, who knew him well."
Mr Lunn said his predecessor's "dedicated work" had contributed to Alliance's success at last week's local government election.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Reg Empey, who was Belfast mayor in 1993 when Mr Close held the corresponding position in Lisburn, said his passing was a "loss to politics"
"I never saw him in terms of a foe," Lord Empey said.
" I saw him as somebody who was genuinely sincere and believed we needed to bring progress to Northern Ireland – to move away from the bad old days."