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Mike Nesbitt slams cost of MLAs’ St Patrick’s Day trip to US

BY VICTORIA O’HARA

A row has erupted between Stormont politicians over how many MLAs should travel to Washington to celebrate St Patrick’s Day at the taxpayers’ expense.

The political clash was sparked after the chair of the OFMDFM committee, Mike Nesbitt, said five members instead of the usual two had been invited.

If the new invitations are accepted it could result in the trip, that is paid for by the taxpayer, trebling in cost to more than £17,000.

Mr Nesbitt, who objected to the increase, said that traditionally it was ministers in the Executive who are invited to Washington for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, along with the chair and vice-chair of the OFMDFM Committee.

This year, however, the invitation was extended to include a committee representative from Sinn Fein, DUP and SDLP.

Mr Nesbitt said: “I cannot see any way the committee can justify the cost of sending extra members on this trip.

“Given the huge financial difficulties many people are facing during these times of austerity, I don’t believe that what the public want to see is more money from the public purse being spent on a trip to the USA.”

He proposed that just the chair and the vice-chair should go and not representatives of the other three parties on the committee. It was put to a vote and Mr Nesbitt was defeated.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP said it should be left to the parties to decide.

It is understood they will decide on Monday who will attend.

A fact-finding trip to Cuba last year by representatives of the Stormont Health Committee sparked controversy after it cost £6,000 per person.

Sinn Fein's Sue Ramsey and the DUP's Jim Wells made the trip to attend a conference and to see health projects in the country first-hand.

Background

The St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City is the largest in the world with 200,000 people taking part and more than two million spectators. It has long been seen as the place to be seen for Irish leaders on both sides of the border and an invitation is viewed as a measure of influence and standing within the US establishment. Parades and celebrations are also held across the rest of America, particularly in cities like Chicago and Boston.

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