The detainment of Irish businessman Richard O'Halloran in China for almost three years is at an end – but at times it seemed so hopeless, that Irish business people with links to China were approached by people with wild schemes to get him home.
"Could we do what was done in Japan with your man Carlos Ghosn?" one wondered aloud.
An extraction modelled on Ghosn – the former Nissan chief executive who, facing allegations in Japan, was smuggled out in a box, aboard a private jet – was no more than a passing suggestion, in truth, probably more of a joke. But it indicates the frustration that built as business figures, diplomats, politicians and O’Halloran’s family sought to secure his release.
After three long years, he landed back in Dublin this weekend, following a round of diplomatic parlour games, high-wire negotiations and tense dealmaking.
He has been reunited in Dublin today with his wife Tara and four children Ben (15), Amber (12), Bella (10) and Scarlett (8) there to greet him.
O'Halloran travelled to Shanghai in February 2019, to do what he thought was the right thing for the company he worked for: the Dublin-based aircraft leasing company China International Aviation Leasing Service (CALS).
The company had become embroiled in an investigation by the Chinese authorities into a peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding scheme organised by the company's chairman Min Jiedong that predated O'Halloran's employment with the company.
Min, the firm's chairman and main shareholder, had raised millions from Chinese investors that was used to buy an Airbus aircraft subsequently leased out to Finnish airline Finnair.
O’Halloran travelled to China in February 2019 to meet investors and assess the problems facing the business. After a week of meetings in Shanghai, when he attempted to board his flight on his return trip to Dublin, he was detained at passport control at the airport and issued with an exit ban – the first known prohibition against an Irish national from leaving China.
It was the start of a long nightmare for the Foxrock father of four. During his time in China, he endured endless court appearances and hours-long police interrogations by the Chinese Public Security Bureau (PSB).There were demands for the payment of large sums – on one occasion $36 million (€30 million) – to lift his exit ban.
He was never accused of any wrongdoing, nor was he ever charged with any crime. He even assisted the Chinese authorities in their prosecution of his former boss. Min was convicted in March 2019 of fundraising fraud and illegal acceptance of public deposits.
It quickly became clear to O'Halloran and his lawyers in China and Ireland that he was being detained because the Chinese authorities wanted the millions of dollars in investor money – or the aircraft bought with their funds – repatriated. But his hands were tied.
The investor money was bound up in an asset leased out on a long-term contract to an airline customer of the company. Irish law prevented him as a director of the company from directing the payment of company funds to the Chinese authorities that might secure his release.
While the demands made of O’Halloran were essentially commercial, and he was never arrested, in the eyes of one businessman with experience in China, it was always going to take a finely-balanced intervention at State level to strike a deal. “I knew from day one that this will only be resolved by the Government,” he said.
The detention was a political and diplomatic nightmare for the Government. Like any citizen detained overseas – from Brian Keenan to Ibrahim Halawa – the pressure to bring O'Halloran home was immense. That pressure was largely exerted on Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and de facto the State's top diplomat. It wasn't simple.
“The Chinese can be intractable,” says one aircraft lessor experienced in the country. “China is a different animal.”
Over the course of O’Halloran’s detention, a view was formed that offending the Chinese government, going in studs-up, would be damaging. However, politicians were understandably restive during long periods with no indication of progress.
In February 2021, a planned Seanad debate on the issue was stalled after Coveney contacted Senator Michael McDowell, who put down the motion, and asked him to forestall it because negotiations were at such a sensitive stage.
McDowell felt he had no choice, and that any delay would be apportioned to his debate. But it still rankles with the former minister for justice. “This is their Wolf Diplomacy,” he said on Friday, referring to a doctrine of Chinese foreign policy. “You have to treat them as if they can’t be offended.”
Speaking about the risks posed by Seanad speechifying, however, one Coalition source said the Chinese government are "the type of crowd who are a) sensitive and b) will have their people listening . . . some junior official in the Chinese embassy in Dublin listened to that on Oireachtas TV."
Fine Gael sources (perhaps unsurprisingly) credit Coveney with managing this fine balance, resisting the temptation to grab headlines with tough talk – especially when his own back was to the wall.
“It would have been much easier for him during Zapponegate to make this into a big issue,” one argues. TDs and Senators from O’Halloran’s constituency also kept the pressure up – Barry Ward, the Fine Gael Senator who ran in Dún Laoghaire in the 2020 general election, was said to be closely involved.
Even after news of O’Halloran’s release broke, senior sources in Government were taciturn. “A very sensitive issue,” was all one would say: the less said about it the better.
I don't know whether all of this couldn't have been achieved a year ago
But his family, and O’Halloran himself, were understandably anxious to get him home – and they had a platform to pursue the case. The family would keep the pressure up on Coveney, who last year raised the case during a meeting with the Chinese foreign minister.
But O’Halloran’s wife, Tara, urged Coveney to travel again to China, stating publicly in recent weeks that she had not received contact from anyone in Government in months.
His brother wrote to Coveney as well. The aircraft leasing sector kept the pressure up, constantly raising it in China. The option to use the megaphone was there for the family: there were informal discussions about Tara going to the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs committee, which would have generated reams of coverage. In fact, that had firmed up into a plan for her to appear next Tuesday.
There remains a school of thought that, no matter how fine the balancing act, O’Halloran could have been brought home earlier.
“It should not have taken three years for that man to get home when nobody involved had any belief the man involved had any culpability,” one figure in the aircraft leasing industry said.
“I don’t know whether all of this couldn’t have been achieved a year ago,” said McDowell, who believes O’Halloran himself became frustrated at times about the slow progress, and his access to Coveney.
Hopes were dashed several times, most recently last month. “The hope was definitely to have him home for Christmas but it didn’t come off,” a Government source said.
O’Halloran’s family said his detention took a heavy toll on his physical and mental health. He was allowed to move about freely in Shanghai, living in hotels and apartments, but he had to watch his children grow up from afar, missing important family occasions and spending “a third Christmas on FaceTime” with them last month. His wife’s mother died during his time away. His elderly parents feared that they would not see their son again.
On two occasions he was told his exit ban had been lifted only to be prevented from boarding a flight at the airport. Family and friends ran a high-profile campaign, speaking to the media and lobbying politicians. They claimed he was being held as an economic hostage in pursuit of a corporate ransom that simply could not be paid.
While senior public figures, including President Michael D Higgins, lobbied extensively for his release, corporate allies sought to help O'Halloran on the commercial side by negotiating an agreement with the Chinese authorities.
At one stage, industry group Aircraft Leasing Ireland offered to raise funds to pay for a human rights lawyer to fight his case.
Veteran businessman Ulick McEvaddy became a director of CALS to try to secure O’Halloran’s release and negotiated an arrangement last year involving a monthly payment – more than $100,000 (€90,000) – to the Chinese authorities from the income flowing in from the Finnair-leased aircraft.
McEvaddy is said to have lent his “grey hairs” to a wider effort by family, friends, colleagues, politicians and people in the Irish business community to get O’Halloran home.
The exact role played by the State and the Department of Foreign Affairs in brokering the deal is shrouded in secrecy.
It is highly unlikely that any payment was made – most observers believe the Government would have likely verified that the legal terms of any commercial deal would be enforceable in Irish courts, over Irish companies. The department did not answer detailed questions surrounding the negotiations on Friday, citing confidentiality on consular cases.
Sources said O’Halloran himself played an important role in securing his passage home – including work that he put in over recent months on the financial aspects of the deal with the Chinese authorities that allowed his exit ban to be lifted on Friday.
“He was able to convince the judge that he was an honest guy with no axe to grind. I’d say the Chinese realised they were barking up the wrong tree,” said one well-placed source.
At one point it was hoped that O’Halloran might have had all the financial arrangements in place to secure sign-off from the Chinese court to be able to get home for Christmas but the Chinese authorities are said to have sought a fresh audit of the company’s finances.
People who know O’Halloran say that he was “very singular” in his approach to finalising a deal with the Chinese over recent months “methodically working on it” during that period.
Intensive back channel efforts by Coveney and Irish diplomats – the culmination of prolonged and often torturous negotiations – proved critical over recent days.
There was the added pressure to get the deal finalised this week before the festive period around the Chinese New Year which could have delayed O’Halloran’s release.
Events this week proved pivotal. O’Halloran attended court on Monday and spent the day in court again on Wednesday finalising the agreement and signing off on agreements that will cover the future payments from the lease income to the Chinese authorities and the return of control of the aircraft when the lease expires in 2026. At that stage, the Chinese will be able to sign a new lease or sell the aircraft to be able to return money to the Chinese investors.
The upcoming third anniversary of O’Halloran’s detention next month was seen as a big milestone, putting additional pressure on the parties to secure an agreement paving the way for his exit ban to be lifted.
Final agreement was reached around the future commitments on the repayments to China and the eventual return of the aircraft to the Chinese authorities allowed the exit ban to be lifted.
Confirming his departure from China, the Chinese embassy tweeted that “it is expected that he continues to fulfil his pledges and commitment and undertake his corresponding legal obligations.”
The outline of the deal, and the tight governance of it, chimes with a view in Government that there had to be an internal logic to the deal, from a Chinese perspective. “You need to make sure they have face,” one source said, adding that it is important that the Chinese government can say: “Our judicial system released this man because there will be a settlement of this debt, and that’s what we said all along.”
One leading Irish business figure with business interests in China – who declined to be named – said that O’Halloran’s long detention in Shanghai would have a chilling effect on others travelling to the country.
“The Irish aircraft leasing community would be very nervous about going into China and that won’t change just because Richard got back,” he said.
"There is a heightened awareness and a heightened risk now and that also includes Hong Kong. I don't want to take that risk. If an innocent person can be detained for three years, that can happen to anyone."