DUP MP Ian Paisley named on guest list 15 days before 'last minute' first class charity trip to New York
Ian Paisley's claim that he flew first class to an event in New York at a charity's expense because he was invited "at the last minute" has been disputed after a guest list mentioning his presence two weeks beforehand emerged.
The DUP man has faced criticism for billing the charity nearly £6,000 for his travel and accommodation. The North Antrim MP flew to New York in February 2018 to participate in a seminar about Northern Ireland's peace process on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
He spoke on a panel at the 20 Years Of Peace conference alongside former SDLP MP Mark Durkan and ex-Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty.
The event was organised by Co-operation Ireland, an all-island peace-building charity that encourages dialogue and collaboration between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The charity paid Mr Paisley's bill, according to the House of Commons register of interests.
Mr Paisley said yesterday that he had "put himself out" for Co-operation Ireland to fly first class to attend the occasion "at the last minute".
However, documents show that he was listed as a guest speaker on February 7 - some 15 days before the event at The Metropolitan Club in Manhattan, which cost up to $1,000 a ticket.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Mr Paisley said his attendance was only confirmed on the conference panel two days before the event.
He said the trip only lasted 24 hours due to his "unbreakable engagements" at Westminster the day before and in Ballymena the day after.
He said: "I am not responsible for what is said or speculated about me.
"I only confirmed my attendance at the NYC event after it was confirmed that I could meet my previous engagements the day before travelling and the day after the event when I had to be in Northern Ireland. And not before it was confirmed that the costs were cleared."
According to the register of interests, Mr Paisley received £6,327.34 to cover a £5,925.11 flight and £402.23 for accommodation from the charity. He is facing calls to repay the money to Co-operation Ireland.
Mr Paisley hit out at the criticism he has received, claiming it was part of a "media witch-hunt" against him.
He added: "There was much discussion about this event in the weeks before it.
"None of that changes the fact that I had unbreakable engagements either side of it and could only be there for less than a day.
"Most sane people would understand that sort of scheduling has an impact on costs."
Others who attended the event, including the Republic's Tanaiste Simon Coveney, flew economy on budget airline Norwegian Air. His expenses were covered by the Irish Government.
Mr Paisley told the Ballymena Guardian earlier: "All the travel costs were pre-approved by Co-operation Ireland.
"I was asked at the last minute by Co-operation Ireland to speak at this event as another speaker had unexpectedly become unavailable. I was asked to attend just a couple of days before travelling.
"Initially I refused as I could not make the time work as I was in Parliament the day before and the day after the event, and I had unbreakable engagements in my constituency.
"The organisers said they would fly me back immediately. I was there for 24 hours. I understand that all the costs were met by the charity sponsor of the event and not from charity funds. I certainly did not bill for my services.
"The organisation paid for the travel directly and agreed everything in advance. I put myself out to be there for less than a day to help complete their conference panel."
Co-operation Ireland has so far declined to respond to Mr Paisley's comments.
Last July MPs voted to suspend Mr Paisley from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days for failing to declare two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan Government in 2013, estimated to be worth around £50,000.
Then, in December, it emerged that he was given a complimentary family holiday to the Maldives in 2016, which he also did not declare.
BBC Spotlight alleged that the visit was requested by the Maldivan Government and facilitated by the resort owner, who had political links, while Mr Paisley said that he had paid for part of the trip, while a friend paid for the rest.