Credit: OHalloran family

Ireland’s shameful abandonment of Richard O’Halloran

Do a search on the website of Amnesty International, Ireland, for “Ibrahim Halawa”, and you will find countless results. Reports. Press releases. Petitions. The works. Do a search of the same organisation’s site for “Richard O’Halloran”, and you will find… nothing.

Ibrahim Halawa, of course, was made a prisoner in Egypt for four years. He was charged – and then acquitted – with sedition against the Egyptian Government for his attendance at protests against the regime. Richard O’Halloran, by contrast, is charged with no crime of any kind. Nevertheless, he has been an effective prisoner of the Chinese State for more than three years.

In the case of Halawa, all the resources and energies of the state, and its affiliated NGOs, were deployed – rightly – to secure his release. The campaign was public, unmissable, and broadcast weekly across all of the main media outlets. There were organised protests at the Egyptian Government’s properties in Ireland. When Mr. Halawa was finally freed, he was welcomed by the national broadcaster onto its flagship talk show.

With Mr. O’Halloran, there has been no such public PR effort to secure his release.

When this writer – and others – have enquired of the Department of Foreign Affairs, either directly or through back-channels, the message in relation to Mr. O’Halloran’s detention has been clear: That negotiations with China are ongoing, sensitive, and at a delicate stage. That a team is working constantly to secure his release. That it might be risky to say too much about it.

And so, like many people, we at Gript have remained broadly quiet on the subject.

But it has been three years. Let us repeat: Mr. O’Halloran faces no criminal charges. Why is he being detained in China? Because in February 2019, he travelled to Shanghai in an attempt to resolve a commercial dispute between the company that employed him and a Chinese counterparty. Chinese Authorities claim that the company Mr. O’Halloran works for owes them €36m. The company disputes this. Mr. O’Halloran is being held, in effect, hostage for ransom.

His wife and children have not seen him in all of that time.

There are a few things to say here: First, regardless of the circumstances, they are civil, not criminal. Mr. O’Halloran is involved (and as an employee, not even directly involved) in a civil dispute. There is no suggestion that he has done anything wrong.

Second, China is behaving outrageously. It has, in effect, taken an Irish citizen as a hostage.

Third, the Irish Government, and the European Union, have responded with extraordinary weakness.

Mr. O’Halloran is not, after all, just an Irish Citizen. We are all told, almost all the time, that we are EU citizens as well. Yet, much like Amnesty Ireland, you will not find a word about Richard O’Halloran coming from any official agency of the European Union. Stronger together? Not, it seems, in the face of China.

Ireland’s policy towards China has, of course, been suspect for some time. We have been extraordinarily muted on the issue of their systemic human rights abuses towards their Muslim Uigher minority. We tolerate, and endorse, their bullying towards Taiwan (a country we refuse to recognise, in case of alienating Beijing). We have been content to pursue trade deals and money from the Chinese, and, in return, stay silent about their abominable behaviour.

That might be understandable (if not exactly moral) when the target of their conduct is a hapless Uigher minority, or other domestic targets. But the fact of the matter is that China has taken an Irish citizen hostage, and the Irish Government is behaving, in public, as if that does not matter at all.

We are often told – endlessly told in fact – that Ireland “punches above its weight” internationally. That doors are open to us in Washington, London, Brussels, and other capitals that other small countries could only dream of. What good is any of that, though, if the Chinese can simply kidnap our citizens for ransom?

The rot, of course, does not only end with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Once again, Ireland’s entire NGO and media establishment have shown themselves only too content to look the other way. It was absolutely right that when Egypt detained Ibrahim Halawa, heaven and earth was moved to get him home. With Richard O’Halloran, though, none of that has happened.

There is no doubt whatever, by the way, that the “official advice” to the O’Halloran family – to his wife, Tara, and others – has been to stay quiet and let the professionals handle this one. That tallies, after all, with what outsiders have been told. But at some point, it becomes necessary to call this for what it is: Bullshit. The Government has had years now to secure O’Halloran’s release. It has many tools it can call upon, and many allies. Instead, it seems readily apparent that given the choice between one of its own citizens, and maintaining good relations with China, Dublin has chosen.

And chosen wrong.

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