Northern Ireland news

Ian Paisley was confirmed as participant at charity's US conference a fortnight before it happened

Ian Paisley claimed he attended a US conference 'at the last minute'

DUP MP Ian Paisley was confirmed as a participant at a charity peace conference in the US a fortnight before he flew to New York first class to attend the event "at the last minute".

The North Antrim MP has claimed peace-building charity Cooperation Ireland agreed to cover the £6,000 cost of his return flights because he was invited to attend "just a couple of days before travelling".

However, two weeks ahead of the February 22, 2018 conference to mark 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Paisley was listed on the charity's website among those taking part.

The Irish News has also seen correspondence sent from Cooperation Ireland on February 1 to conference participants, including Mr Paisley, stating that the charity would "reimburse your coach (economy) class airfare".

Others travelling to the event from Ireland and Britain, including Tánaiste Simon Coveney and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, flew economy class – more than 10 times cheaper than the DUP MP's flight cost.

In a response to last week's report in The Irish News, the North Antrim MP said: "I was asked at the last minute by Cooperation 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."

Westminster's official record shows Mr Paisley made no statements in the Commons in the two weeks before he departed for New York on February 20. His first engagement after returning from the US on February 23, according to Hansard, was chairing a UK Fisheries Policy debate in Westminster Hall four days later.

"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," Mr Paisley told the Ballymena Guardian.

The Irish News understands the expenses incurred by those taking part were covered by the $500-a-head fee the charity charged for the sold-out conference.

The DUP MP also said he "was there for 24 hours" and that the two-day conference organisers would "fly me back immediately". According to the Westminster register of interests, however, he departed New York the day after the event finished.

In his response, Mr Paisley has claimed it was a "week long conference".

"The comparison made of costs of my last minute arrangement for just a matter of hours in the country and those who were there for several days is just inaccurate," he said.

The DUP MP was suspended from the House of Commons last July for an unprecedented 30-sitting days for failing to register two luxury family holidays in Sri Lanka. He was also found to have carried out paid advocacy on behalf of the south Asian island's regime, writing to the then prime minister David Cameron urging him not to support a United Nations probe in human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

In December, little over a fortnight after the North Antrim MP returned from his suspension, it emerged that Mr Paisley and his family travelled to the Maldives in 2016 but that the parliamentary authorities were not informed about the trip.

Neither the DUP nor Mr Paisley responded to a requests for a comment.

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