Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Finally revealed: how much First Ministers spent selling Northern Ireland to the world

Stormont office discloses travel bill of £350,000 to dispel secrecy claims

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Sao Paulo during their five-day visit to Brazil
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Sao Paulo during their five-day visit to Brazil

Foreign trips by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness over the last year have cost the public purse more than £350,000, raising questions over whether they were good value for money.

Job-seeking missions between March of last year and this April took in two trips to the United States — one including South America — China and Brussels.

They had promised to reveal the detail of the trips in the aftermath of recent controversy that the amounts involved were being kept secret.

According to figures released by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) yesterday, the total spent on flights, accommodation and other costs, including transport, was given as £357,042.

Ulster Unionists last night insisted the failure to disclose the totals before now revealed “total paranoia” within the pair’s Stormont office.

And the SDLP said it remains to be seen if the trips represent value for money.

The largest single bill was run up during their most recent trip to North and South America, where the total came in at more than £153,000. The aim, they said, was to “develop and promote political, investment, trade, university and tourism links”.

It breaks down into £109,892 for flights, £38,827 for accommodation with other costs, and £6,790 for transport.

The 10-day trip took in Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles and Washington — in time for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness were accompanied by two private secretaries, two special advisers, two Press officers and a photographer.

Next comes the First Minister and Deputy First Ministers’ trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where they were accompanied by DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell. The total exceeded £82,000.

The week-long mission ran up £57,814 in flight costs, £19,800 for accommodation and other costs and £4,400 in transport. Between them, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, Mr Bell, and his Sinn Fein counterpart Jennifer McCann made three trips to Brussels between December 2011 and February this year — though not all of them were on each trip — at a cost to the taxpayer of between £4,000 and £7,000 each time.

The top two also made a trip to Texas in February this year, without any Press officers on this occasion, which resulted in a bill of £59,498.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (left), who has called the trips into question in the Assembly, said the totals reflected the “total paranoia” within the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

“They would really have little difficulty in defending those levels of costs but they created the headlines by giving the impression that they had something to hide,” he said.

Mr Nesbitt, who chairs the Assembly committee which monitors the First Ministers’ office, said: “That has to reflect the total paranoia within the office.

“At one level I would say this was not cheap and they do not make clear whether they travelled business class or first class.

“It looks like some might have been first class.

“I have no difficulty with them travelling business class, they have to be fresh on arrival in these places.”

The SDLP’s Conall McDevitt said the jury was still out on whether the trips will prove to be value for money.

“By any standards the cost of the trip to North and South America is a very significant investment by taxpayers.

“We will have to gauge it against the jobs which it delivers for Northern Ireland, and the jury is still absolutely out on that.

“If the investment is repaid and we see jobs, then fantastic, but if not, then people need to be asking if that level of extravagance is justified.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Some of these trips are questionable because they do not seem to give any obvious return.”

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