Richard O’Halloran’s return: ‘Quiet diplomacy kept him in China three years’

Reflective and emotional businessman decompressing after trauma of detention

Even at the end of his ordeal, almost three years after he was first detained in China, Dublin businessman Richard O'Halloran remained nervous and paranoid on his flight home late last month.

After years of "always looking over my shoulder" in China, he feared his return flight from Seoul to Paris could still be diverted to a Chinese airport as he flew west over China.

“In a moment of madness, I thought: ‘Do I ask the pilot to fly north?’” he told The Irish Times.

“Going back over Chinese airspace at the back of my mind was like, will they ground this plane? Had they a change of mind? They might still be going through paperwork and thinking: ‘We have one last chance to stop this guy. We know the flight he is on.’”

He tracked the plane icon closely on his in-flight monitor until it left Chinese airspace. After previous failed attempts to leave, he realised finally he was on his way home. He was free.

"Relieved" and "epic" is how he described his January 29th return almost three years after he became embroiled in a legal dispute between the Chinese chairman of the Dublin aircraft leasing company he works for and a Shanghai court over tens of millions of euros raised from Chinese investors that was used to buy an Airbus aircraft that is now leased out.

Sitting in the kitchen of his Foxrock home, a reflective and emotional O'Halloran is still decompressing from the trauma of his detention and long-held fears sitting in Shanghai hotels, apartments and courts that he might not return to his wife Tara and their four children again.

‘A whirlwind’

His last, frantic week in China dealing with the judge overseeing the case, his arrival back in Dublin and meeting his family in an airport lounge after years apart were “a whirlwind.”

“It was just like a compression of time into one moment,” he said of that emotional reunion with his family.

The selfie photo by his ecstatic daughter Bella with a beaming Richard and his family in the background posted by Tara on Twitter “encapsulates three years in one shot,” he said.

He is loving the simple things of family life: the school run, the hustle and bustle of the their busy home - “even emptying the dishwasher,” he said.

“It is great to be around family, great to be around people and loved ones and not being alone. The isolation is the killer, no companionship,” he said.

“Despair is probably the word,” said Tara of his time in China. “It was a horrendous three years, but we kind of feel like we have been given a second chance now that he is back.”

The happy home life they are living now is a far cry from O’Halloran’s lowest moments in China. It began when he voluntarily travelled to China in 2019 to meet investors and try to resolve “the whole rigmarole” around a crowdfunding investment that predated his time in the company.

When he went to leave China, he was blocked. It was the start of a painful court process for O’Halloran as the Chinese sought the return of the plane or about €30 million of investors’ money.

By the second half of 2020, nothing was resolved. He was stuck in endless court hearings, yet never accused of any crime. He felt abandoned by the Irish Government, with the Department of Foreign Affairs telling him it was "a commercial matter and they couldn't get involved."

Stress and anxiety

He stopped sleeping and eating and, alone in hotels, he started drinking heavily. The stress and anxiety grew and eventually led to pain, back spasms and seizures. He lost 20 kilos.

“I genuinely thought that I had nothing here [in Dublin] helping - nothing. No support from the Irish Government. I thought I was at sea on my own, in the corner of a boxing ring,” he said. “That was two months of just giving up on life.”

At one point, he was rushed to hospital where he collapsed and woke up two days later.

His family had been warned against speaking out publicly to the media for fear of antagonising the Chinese but with her husband’s health deteriorating, Tara could not sit back.

"There was nothing being done. There was no urgency. I was crying down the phone to Simon Coveney saying 'you have to help us, he is going to die'," she said.

Mr O’Halloran cannot pinpoint what led him to turn things around but throughout last year he made every effort to assist the Chinese court in the complicated enforcement process around reaching an agreement on the future of the plane and its planned return to the investors in 2026.

“I just came to a realisation that I had Tara, the kids and if something happened to me, it was very serious,” he said.

He realised he needed to build trust with the Chinese to pave the way for his release, fulfilling every request for documentation and going well beyond what was requested.

Last month, after 50 or 60 visits to court over the years, the judge came to his apartment, asking Mr O’Halloran for a promise he would do “x, y and z” about the plane. They shook hands and the judge gave him the document lifting the exit ban.

“Maybe it was a gesture,” he said of the judge’s unusual visit.

‘Quiet diplomacy’

Looking back, Richard and Tara believe that the importance of the State’s trade with China prevented the Government from being more forceful in its dealings with the Chinese over his case.

“Quiet diplomacy is what kept him there three years, not what got him home,” she said.

“There was never a statement of protest. There was never any senior person outright saying that we ‘condemn this’, that he is ‘being held against his will’.”

Richard is thankful for Mr Coveney’s help on his case but believes the Minister was badly advised initially and that a suggestion that there was “no smoke without fire” around Mr O’Halloran that might deterred more intensive efforts by the department.

He believes this that might have cost him a year. He claims that it took businessman Ulick McEvaddy - someone the Minister knew - joining the board of his company to encourage Mr Coveney to become more involved.

“It shouldn’t have taken Ulick as a private sector individual to sway the Minister to get involved,” he said.

A source close to the Minister said that Mr Coveney was actively involved in Mr O'Halloran's case long before Mr Evaddy joined the board.

In response to queries on its handling of the case, a spokeswoman for Mr Coveney’s department said the Government was “actively engaged on and remained committed to the matter throughout.”

“There was at all stages very extensive engagement on Mr O’Halloran’s case at the most senior political and diplomatic levels - stressing the urgent importance of Mr O’Halloran being allowed to return home as soon as possible,” she said.

"This involved multiple channels - with engagement by the Taoiseach, Minister Simon Coveney and the most senior political levels in Dublin; as well as by our most senior diplomats in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere throughout Ireland's diplomatic network."

‘Bizarre’

Mr O’Halloran said it was “bizarre” that Mr Coveney thanked the Chinese authorities in a public statement released by the department on the day he was allowed to leave China.

“Did John O’Grady and his family thank Dessie O’Hare for releasing him minus the tops of his two little fingers?” he said, referring to the 1987 kidnapping and torture of the Dublin dentist.

Tara said that the statement was “very upsetting” for his family and his mother.

Describing himself as “an eternal optimist”, O’Halloran accepts he “cannot buy back time” lost with family, but he has come back “emotionally much stronger”, having given up alcohol and with a new-found and deep understanding of stress and anxiety, and what it can do to the body.

“We are so proud of him that he has turned his life around and he has come away stronger,” said Tara, sitting next to her husband.

Mr O’Halloran described the experience as “character-defining” and a “spiritual awakening” making him realise what he values most in life. He also recognises what his “phenomenal” wife Tara did over the past three years and the loyal support of family and friends.

“It is very humbling. You understand what love is properly. You understand what companionship is,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

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