North Antrim MP Ian Paisley has justified taking a first-class flight to attend a New York conference by saying he "put himself out" to facilitate a "last minute" request from the charity Cooperation Ireland to speak at the event.
While Mr Paisley told this week's Ballymena Guardian that he went out of his way to facilitate the charity the Cooperation Ireland's website shows that two weeks in advance of the conference he was listed as one of the participants.
Mr Paisley told The Irish Times on Wednesday that there was no contradiction in his saying he was a "last minute" participant and being billed in advance as one of the speakers.
“Nothing was finalised until a few days before travelling to the event,” he said.
“Obviously I and the organisers were working to try to get this to work out,” he added.
Mr Paisley flew to the United States in February last year at a cost of almost £6,000 for the "20 Years Of Peace" conference marking the anniversary year of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
The House of Commons register of interests showed he received £5,925.11 for the first-class flight, while his accommodation was £402.23, bringing the total cost to £6,327.34. These costs were met by the business organisers of the event in which the charity Cooperation Ireland was centrally involved.
It triggered calls for Mr Paisley to reimburse the first-class flight, particularly as other participants in the conference such as the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, former SDLP leader Mark Durkan and former Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty flew economy class, which was more than 10 times cheaper in price.
Mr Paisley would make no comment at the time but he later broke his silence to speak to the Ballymena Guardian. He told his local newspaper that he was "asked at the last minute" by Cooperation Ireland to speak at the event last year and "initially I refused".
‘Put himself out’
Mr Paisley said he “put himself out” to attend the event and was in New York for just 24 hours. He said he was asked fill in for a speaker who had “unexpectedly become unavailable”
“The organisers said they would fly me in for my speech and fly me back immediately. I was there for 24 hours,” he said.
“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,” he added.
“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,” added Mr Paisley.
It is understood that while he was billed two weeks in advance as one of the speakers that later he sought to cry off the event citing pressure of work and his stated requirement to be in Westminster around the time of the February 22nd conference last year.
Mr Paisley also told the Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday night that 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.
“I am not responsible for what is said or speculated about me,” he said.
"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," he added.
Co-operation Ireland would make no comment about the issue on Wednesday.
In July Mr Paisley was suspended 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.
In December BBC Spotlight reported that Mr Paisley had not registered a complimentary family holiday in the Maldives in 2016 and that he had lobbied on behalf of its government.
Mr Paisley said he paid for part of the trip and the rest was paid for by a friend whose identity he chose not to disclose.