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Ireland predicts Brexit boost from ‘stalwart friend’ Biden



Ireland predicted Joe Biden’s victory would prompt Downing Street to “pause for thought” in Brexit talks as Micheál Martin, the prime minister, called the incoming US president a “stalwart friend and supporter” of the country.

Mr Biden is but the latest in a long line of American leaders with old family links to Ireland, a legacy of the country’s long history of emigration, but Mr Martin said he will be the “most Irish” president since John F Kennedy more than half a century ago. 

The election of a man who once said “Ireland will be written on my soul” has cheered his ancestral home — each of Mr Biden’s eight great great-grandparents on his mother’s side were Irish-born, as were two great-grandparents on his father’s side. In television footage from January that circulated widely on social media over the weekend, a smiling Mr Biden is seen replying to a request for comment from the BBC by simply saying: “I’m Irish.”

But it is in the heated realpolitik of Brexit that Dublin believes the president-elect may make a difference, as the endgame approaches in fraught EU-UK trade talks. Mr Biden’s opposition to Brexit stands in contrast to Donald Trump’s support, and he has described Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, as “a physical and emotional clone” of the incumbent in the White House. 

The president-elect has taken a dim view of Mr Johnson’s contentious Brexit legislation that will break international law by reneging on terms of Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty designed to keep open the land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The Irish border has been the biggest flashpoint in years of fractious talks between London and Brussels.

As the UK prime minister faces a heavy House of Lords defeat this week on that legislation, he must now deal with a president-elect who warned during the election campaign that Britain could forget any prospect of a US-UK trade deal if it made Northern Ireland “a casualty” of Brexit. 

Mr Martin has seized on Mr Biden’s victory, saying he “has pledged his ongoing steadfast support” for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that settled decades of deadly conflict in Northern Ireland. 

Simon Coveney, the foreign minister, went further on Monday, saying the situation in Washington had changed. 

“Now that Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the US, I certainly think that will be a cause for . . . a pause for thought in Number 10 to ensure that the Irish issues are prioritised as we try to close out this phase of the Brexit negotiation,” Mr Coveney told RTE. 

“I don’t say that in any way that’s provocative towards the UK. I think it’s just reality. I think we all want now to try to see the back of tense stand-offs linked to Brexit.” 

Paul Allen, a leading light in the “Irish for Biden” campaign group, said Mr Biden was proud of his Irish lineage. “Having met him during various St Patrick’s day visits to Washington and Capitol Hill over the years, he always loved reaching out to the Irish and the Irish diaspora,” he said.

Referring to Mr Biden’s looming inauguration, he added: “I certainly think that in an international sense, on January 20 the die is going to be cast in the context of Brexit.”

According to Mr Martin, the taoiseach, Mr Biden’s strong family ties with counties Mayo and Louth are such that people there count him “among their own”. 

Irish relatives include Joe Blewitt, a plumber in the Mayo town of Ballina who is a third cousin once removed of the president-elect. He made headlines locally by turning the election to his advantage in advertising on his van: “Joe Biden for the White House and Joe Blewitt for your house.”

Mr Blewitt has been inundated with calls from well-wishers since Mr Biden was declared the winner, he told the FT. “We’re absolutely thrilled. We are so happy for the family. It’s unbelievable. He has been on a long road and now he is finally going to be president.”

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park




Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus




EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.

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