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I've taken a pasting over controversial US trip, admits Basil McCrea

By Noel McAdam

Basil McCrea has admitted that he has endured “a fair pasting” over a controversial fact-finding trip for MLAs to California — but stressed it could still go ahead.

Last week The Belfast Telegraph revealed that all 11 members of Stormont’s Employment and Learning Committee could go on the controversial all-expenses paid trip to San Diego in the New Year to visit a science park.

Committee chair UUP MLA Basil McCrea defended the plans at the time and insisted they were “no junket” and the trip was vital for Northern Ireland which was facing “the depths of unemployment”.

But the plan was met with anger from the TUV and Sinn Fein. Committee member Barry McElduff said it was “ridiculous’’ that the committee is considering ‘‘a trip to the sun’’ in the face of a deepening austerity drive.

At Stormont yesterday the Employment and Learning Committee heard that no decision on the plan will be made until the New Year. Mr McCrea yesterday said he had taken “a fair pasting” over the controversy but pledged the committee would be “fair, open and transparent.”

And he added: “Only if there is a business case that can stand up to public scrutiny will this decision [to go] be taken.”

No Sinn Fein or SDLP members of the committee were present yesterday — but unionists certainly differed over the proposal.

TUV’s Jim Allister, who has already said he will not go on the trip, said the case for making the five-day visit was “looking increasingly dubious”.

But the DUP’s David McIlveen said it was good for committee members to learn as much as possible. He added: “There’s a big world out there and it’s a world that is doing things a bit better than we are.”

And his party colleague Sammy Douglas said it was only by going out and meeting “key influencers” that the committee could hope to play a big part in helping create the 25,000 jobs which the Programme for Government promises to promote.

\[John Monaghan\]Chris Lyttle of Alliance said there had been some mis-representation of the possible trip and the public should be re-assured there would be full scrutiny.

But even if the visit does get the go-ahead, the MLAs appear to accept that the entire committee need not take part - but could send a smaller group which would report back.

Mr McCrea explained in the initial stages of the proposal it was not up to him as chairman to stipulate that two or three members would go - under Assembly rules all members are entitled to take part.

background

Despite the Budget squeeze, an Assembly committee is considering a visit to the US in search of potential jobs. It comes after senior personnel from San Diego recently told a conference in Belfast how the city dealt with a skills deficit similar to Northern Ireland. In a presentation at Belfast’s Science and Technology Park, the co-founder of Connect San Diego told how though once labelled America’s ‘bust’ city it had now transformed into a hugely successful ‘knowledge economy’. However, no verdict by the Employment and Learning Committee on the trip has yet been reached.

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