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Irish family of engineer held in Baghdad living a ‘nightmare’

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The Irish family of an engineer, who was arrested three weeks ago after being summoned to a meeting in Iraq, have spoken to him for the first time since his detention.

Co Roscommon-based Desree Pether said her husband, Robert Pether (46), an Australian citizen, was “terrified” when she spoke to him by phone on Tuesday and still had no idea what charge was being made against him. He had attended one court hearing which was conducted in Arabic and had spent two weeks in solitary confinement, she said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he had been made aware of the case, which was raised in the Seanad this week by Senator Eugene Murphy. “We will do everything we possibly can,” Mr Martin said on Wednesday. “We know this must be a very difficult time for his family. We’re working with the Australian government, which is taking the lead.” The Taoiseach said the Department of Foreign Affairs was working on the case.

Mr Pether is being detained with an Egyptian colleague who was arrested with him on April 7th, when they both turned up for a purported meeting in Baghdad with the governor of the Central Bank of Iraq.

“There was no meeting. There were no pleasantries. They were met by 12 security officers and arrested and marched to a compound,” said Ms Pether who is an Irish citizen. She said her husband was forced to hand over his phone, laptop and hard drive and had no idea if his family knew what had become of him. He spent two weeks in the suit he had worn to the meeting and “doesn’t even have a toothbrush”. However, she said her husband had reassured her that he was not being ill treated.

‘Pawns’

Ms Pether said the two men were “pawns in a game of chess” and were caught up in a dispute between their company and its client, the central bank. Mr Pether had been overseeing the construction of a new headquarters for the central bank in Baghdad, a project which is ongoing for four years.

Recently he had been working on a different project in Dubai but was asked to return to Baghdad to meet the governor to sort out the problems, Ms Pether explained.

“He rang the Australian embassy in Baghdad three days before he left Dubai and they assured him he would be safe,” she said.

Ms Pether said her husband “feels betrayed” and told her the Australian embassy had done nothing. She said all the information she had been getting from Baghdad was coming through the family of his Egyptian colleague.

“Rob knows even less than we do. He doesn’t know where he is being held,” she said. Her husband “has done nothing wrong” and had in fact been praised for the way the project, which he had overseen for four years, had progressed, she said.

Robert Pether, who is detained in Iraq, with his wife, Desree.
Robert Pether, who is detained in Iraq, with his wife, Desree.

Mr Pether was allowed access to a phone after 20 days when the Egyptian embassy arranged a visit for his colleague, according to his wife whose late father is from Dublin and who was raised in Australia. The family has been living in Elphin, Co Roscommon for two years.

Mr Pether arrived in Baghdad from Dubai on April 1st and continued to work on the project until April 7th when he went as arranged to a lunchtime meeting. Ms Pether said her husband, who normally texted her several times a day and rang the family every evening, was very emotional when he unexpectedly got to speak to her this week.

“When I told him his case had been raised in the Seanad he cried. He felt so hopeless and he is so touched at the support in Ireland. ” Mr Pether was “beside himself” about his children and especially his eldest son Flynn who was doing his Leaving Cert, she added.

Mr Pether was due home in Elphin this week to celebrate his birthday with his wife and three children, Flynn (17), Oscar (15) and Nala (8). Both Flynn and Oscar are Irish citizens and Ms Pether said Nala and Robert were applying for Irish citizenship but Covid-19 had slowed the process .

Ms Pether said it was “like living your worst nightmare. It’s like being in a Hollywood blockbuster. I keep waking up every morning thinking it was a bad dream.”

The central bank building was the last one designed by the celebrated British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid who died in 2016.


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Simon Harris and wife welcome new baby boy

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Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has announced the birth of a baby son.

Posting on Instagram, the Minister said he and his wife Caoimhe had on Wednesday “welcomed Baby Cillian into the world”. Cillian is the couple’s second child, they also have a daughter Saoirse.

“Caoimhe and baby doing great and Saoirse delighted to be a big sister and looking forward to meeting him soon.”

Mr Harris thanked all of the staff at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin.

The Fine Gael TD said he will be taking paternity leave for a few weeks to “get to know this new little man”.

In a previous post he said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would be taking any of his department’s business to Government during the time while Minister of State Niall Collins would be carrying out his day-to-day work in the department and Labour leader Alan Kelly would be providing a pair for Dáil votes.

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Macron presses Biden for ‘clarifications’ over submarine snub

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Macron was left furious by Australia’s decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

After a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal made clear French anger had not abated with an unusually frank statement of Macron’s expectations from the scheduled conversation with 78-year-old Biden.

The exchange would be an opportunity to “clarify both the way in which this announcement was made and the way for an American re-engagement in its relationship with an ally,” Attal said.

Paris was particularly outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as “treachery” and a “stab in the back”.

French officials were notified about the loss of the contract just hours before Biden unveiled the new AUKUS security and defence partnership between the three English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO OPINION: France’s Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

Macron was expecting “clarifications about the American decision to keep a European ally outside of fundamental talks about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Attal added, without giving the schedule time for the exchange.

“We expect our allies to acknowledge that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question about confidence, which all of us need to draw conclusions about now.”

Showdown

The submarine row has plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts view as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris opposed.

After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat has also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January aiming to rebuild frazzled ties with Europe.

As the row drags on, observers and some of France’s European partners are wondering how and when the French leader will call an end to the face-off, which is playing out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.

British Prime Minister Johnson said it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ (get a grip)” in comments in Washington that mixed French and English.

“‘Donnez-moi un break’ because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he told Sky News.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country is staunchly pro-American, defended Biden as “very loyal” and warned against turning “challenges which will always exist between allies into something they should not be.”

Conditions

Attal said that France and the US needed to begin a process “to create the conditions for confidence to be restored”.

As well as an acknowledgement of French interests in the Pacific region, the process should include “full recognition by our American allies of the need to boost European sovereignty as well as the importance of the growing commitment by the Europeans to their own defence and security.”

This latter point is a source of tension between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.

The US, and some EU members including Denmark and Baltic countries, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued against the idea of France withdrawing from NATO command structures, which some politicians in France have suggested in the wake of the submarines snub.

“Is it worth slamming the door on NATO? I don’t think so,” she said, while adding that “political dialogue is non-existent in NATO.”

Australia’s decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China’s commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing.



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Paschal Donohoe plans bank levy extension but lower haul

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Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will continue the Irish banking levy beyond its scheduled conclusion date at the end of this year, but plans to lower the targeted annual haul from the current €150 million as overseas lenders Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland retreat from the market, according to sources.

Reducing the industry overall levy target will avoid the remaining three banks facing higher levy bills at a time when the Government is seeking to lower its stakes in the bailed-out lenders.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB paid a combined €93 million levy in each of the last two years, according to their latest annual reports. A decision on the new targeted yield, currently linked to deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) collected by banks on customers’ savings, will be announced at the unveiling of Budget 2022 on October 12th.

Originally introduced in 2014 by then minister for finance Michael Noonan for three years to ensure banks made a “contribution” to a recovering economy after the sector’s multibillion-euro taxpayer bailout, the annual banking levy has since been extended to the end of 2021.

A further extension of the levy has largely been expected by the banks and industry analysts, as the sector has been able to use multibillion euro losses racked up during the financial crisis to reduce their tax bills. A spokesman for the Department of Finance declined to comment on the future status of the banking levy as planning for Budget 2022 continues.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB (PTSB) alone have utilised almost €500 million of tax losses against their corporation tax bills between 2017 and 2019, according to Department of Finance figures.

Sources said that the Government will be keen not to land a levy increase on the three lenders at a time when it is currently selling down its stake in Bank of Ireland and plotting a course for the reduction of its positions in AIB and PTSB in time.

The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), which holds the Bank of Ireland stake on behalf of the Minister for Finance, sold 2 percentage points of holding in the market between July and August, reducing its interest to just below 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, it has been reported in recent days that the UK government is planning to lower an 8 per cent surcharge that it has applied to bank profits since the start of 2016. It comes as the general UK corporation tax is set to rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023.

“The optics of reducing the surcharge might still be bad politically, but it would signal the partial rehabilitation for the nation’s banking sector,” said Eamonn Hughes, an analyst with Goodbody Stockbrokers, in a note to clients on Tuesday, adding that he continues to factor in a retention of the Irish banking levy in his financial estimates for banks over the medium term.

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