The long-serving politician and father-of-two stepped down from the Assembly in September due to ill health. He was 60.
Sir Jeffrey said: “Despite David’s battle with cancer, he served the people of East Antrim faithfully and only stepped back from elected office in September past. He had a passion for people and believed in serving others whether that was in the political realm or his beloved Carrick Rangers Football Club.
“In recent times, his illness and treatment were taking an incredible toll on his body, but David would still come to meetings and speak up for the people he represented.”
David Hilditch was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998 and was subsequently re-elected in the 2011, 2016, 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections. He was one of only three MLAs who served continually from 1998 until 2023.
When he retired from the Assembly, it ended 32 years of public service. David first entered local government in 1991, winning a by-election in the Castle District of Carrickfergus Borough Council. During his time on the council, he served as Deputy Mayor from 1994 to 1996, and in 1997 he was elected as Mayor, serving a second term from 2004 to 2008.
Sir Jeffrey added: “Whilst as colleagues, we can look back over a life of dedication and service to the people of Carrickfergus, East Antrim and Northern Ireland, our prayers today are with those who were closest to David amongst his family and friends.”
DUP chairman Lord Morrow said: “This is so sad. David was dependable, reliable, honourable, trustworthy and loyal. He will be missed. I can remember David first being elected in Carrickfergus. Such was his affinity to the area, Dr Paisley used to affectionately refer to him as ‘the mayor of Carrick’ .
“His loss will most acutely be felt by his family but he also will be mourned by a community who he loved and served tirelessly. He leaves a legacy of public service to others which will live long into the future.”
A prominent figure in the Loyal Orders, Mr Hilditch was Chief Marshall of Carrickfergus District LOL No. 19, which he also served as District Master for seven years.
He had a long association with Carrick Rangers FC, where he was a director. He was the proud dad of Michael and the late Stuart, a former player for the Taylor’s Avenue-based club who died from cancer in 2019.
Extending his condolences to Mr Hilditch’s family, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson highlighted the extent of his late colleague’s contribution to the community.
"There was hardly an organisation in the town that he was not involved in. He was prominent in football club, cricket club, the band hall, traders’ associations, the council, the Orange Order, the Black Institution, the Apprentice Boys and many of the community groups.
"David was never one of the high profile members of the Assembly but he worked diligently in the DCAL Committee where he was able to use his knowledge and experience in the world of sport to guide discussions, initiate programmes and promote sporting issues especially those affecting football which was his love and passion.
"He earned huge respect for the persistence with which he pursued the causes which he took up. By contrast he was a giant in his local constituency; he knew everyone, he had a wealth of knowledge on the issues affecting his constituents and was trusted by those whom he represented.
“Throughout most of the time I knew him, he battled ill health but never let it deter him from his duties. I had seen him struggling as he walked around doors canvassing but he wouldn’t give up.”
After he stood down from the Assembly Mr Hilditch was replaced by Cheryl Brownlee, then a Mid and East Antrim councillor who worked alongside him in his constituency office.
In a personal tribute to the former postal worker, Cheryl said: “He was a proud working class man who always had East Antrim at the very heart of everything he done. He dedicated his life to serving and sacrificed so much, even when he was struggling himself.
“He was fiercely loyal, trustworthy and honest, those qualities I admired for so long and made him stand out from the crowd, he was the man that got things done. The outpouring of love at the news of his passing is testament to the legacy he has left.”
Meanwhile, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alex Maskey has expressed his condolences on the death of Mr Hilditch.
Mr Maskey said: “I was deeply sorry to hear about the untimely passing of David Hilditch. David and I were both elected to the Assembly in 1998 so I have known and witnessed the value of his work since then. David was not one known for leading heated debates in the Assembly Chamber. Instead, he built a strong reputation as an assiduous representative of his constituents in East Antrim.
"It was a mark of his dedication that he continued as a Member of the Assembly for so long to serve his constituents even though his health was declining. In the way he conducted his business, whether relating to east Antrim, his passion for sport or other issues, David developed positive relationships right across the Assembly.
"I therefore know that MLAs from all parties will be saddened to hear of his death. My sympathies go to David’s DUP colleagues but of course David’s family and friends are uppermost in our thoughts today.”
In a statement, Carrick Rangers FC said the club was deeply saddened by Mr Hilditch’s death.
"David was a tireless worker for the club, fulfilling many roles over the years including chairman, secretary, treasurer and safety officer amongst others. A lifelong supporter of his hometown team, David’s commitment and dedication was unwavering through both good and bad periods, playing a crucial role in building the club on strong foundations off-the-pitch while seeing many successes under his stewardship on it.
"Not only was he a pillar for the club, but he was also deeply rooted in the Carrickfergus community. It is hard to imagine Carrick Rangers without David Hilditch and his loss will undoubtedly be felt not just at his beloved Taylor’s Avenue but indeed by the entire Irish League family.
“On behalf of everyone at Carrick Rangers, we would like to extend our sympathies to the Hilditch family circle and friends.”