Irish businessman Richard O’Halloran, who was detained in China for three years, has spoken of his difficulties in achieving assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and what he described as an apparent initial hesitance of Minister Simon Coveney to become involved.
Mr O’Halloran and his wife, Tara, said on Saturday morning that most of the “heavy lifting” in terms of securing his release was done by themselves through Mr O’Halloran’s working with the courts in China and Ms O’Halloran’s speaking out to media in Ireland.
The businessman was caught up in a dispute between the Chinese authority and Min Jiedong, the chairman and main shareholder of the Dublin firm China International Aviation Leasing Service, where Mr O’Halloran is a director.
The dispute centred on Min’s raising of funds from Chinese investors in a crowdfunding scheme to buy an Airbus aircraft. This predated Mr O’Halloran’s employment with the company.
Mr O’Halloran said when he was initially prevented from leaving China after a three-day business trip in February 2019, he was told by the Irish Consulate in Shanghai they could not help him because it was a commercial matter.
“I obviously went to the Irish Consulate in Shanghai,” he said. “I was told it was a commercial matter and they couldn’t engage. So at this point I thought the Irish Government, the consulate, the embassy network was supposed to help Irish citizens abroad, and I was being told it was a commercial matter, we cannot engage. And I was saying, what part of the police being involved is a commercial matter?”
Mr O’Halloran said that this stance continued for the first year of his detention and it was his view that Mr Coveney had been advised against getting involved.
It was an extraordinary low point . . . I did not feel the Irish Government were doing anything to help
Both Mr O’Halloran and his wife said the advice from diplomatic channels had been to not seek publicity about his detention, for fear of making things worse.
Mr O’Halloran said some of his own legal advice had been not to speak out and if he did so his “safety cannot be guaranteed”.
Ms O’Halloran said during the first year of his detention, they had not even told friends and said that, as a result, some assumed the couple had separated.
After the first year Ms O’Halloran went public and organised a campaign to draw up support for her husband’s plight.
Mr O’Halloran outlined to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One how his health declined as he confronted the prospect that he might not see his wife and family again until a lease deal with an aircraft had resulted in sufficient earnings to settle matters in China.
Mr O’Halloran said he began drinking too much in his hotel - where he stayed during his three year detention - and that he lost 20kg in weight, ending up in a hospital where his heart stopped and he had to be resuscitated.
If I am going to get out of here, I am going to have to do it myself
“I turned in on myself” he said. “It was an extraordinary low point . . . I turned completely in on myself . . . I did not feel the Irish Government were doing anything to help at the time, even though they said they were.”
He said he owed it to his “beautiful wife, my kids” to recover and he decided that “if I am going to get out of here, I am going to have to do it myself”. He decided to work with the court in China to find a solution.
“All the heavy lifting had been done by me right up to let’s call it the end of November, December,” he said.
Mr O’Halloran also paid tribute to the businessman Ulick McEvaddy who agreed to become a director of Mr O’Halloran’s company, a factor he said provided comfort for Mr Coveney’s participation in subsequent efforts to secure his release.
“There was obviously dialogue between Simon Coveney and his counterpart in China. Simon did read me a letter that his counterpart wrote to him and it was made clear their court had to go through a process, it had to and that was fair enough and I had to deliver what I was being asked, which I did and more.”
He said there was a moment of anxiety when he was leaving China as passport control officials asked him to wait while they made checks. Mr O’Halloran said he was talking on the phone to his wife at the time and it was a very difficult moment as he had over the years been turned away twice.
While the couple welcomed the diplomatic pressure applied by Mr Coveney and the Irish Government, they said they did not feel it had been appropriate to pay tribute to the Chinese government for being helpful in trying to bring the issue to an end after Mr O’Halloran was released.
Ms O’Halloran said “thanking the Chinese was in kind of poor taste given what Richard had to go through and the ordeal that we had all faced for three years and I just certainly did not think it was necessary for our family. That is my personal opinion.”
Mr O’Halloran said “obviously the Irish Government did do stuff behind the scenes. I certainly thank Simon Coveney for what he did. In the end, I mean, I am here.
“There is evidence of some heavy lifting, I don’t know what. Obviously he was liaising with his counterpart but I don’t know what was done.” Mr O’Halloran also said he wanted to make it clear there was no payment or guarantee made by the Irish Government.