Saturday 25 February 2017

John Downing: PJ Mara's great personal charm was key to his success in media relations

An untiring advocate for the often embattled Charlie Haughey

John Downing

John Downing

PJ Mara at Leinster House in 2008
PJ Mara at Leinster House in 2008

“And remember, none of that ol’ Arms Trial shite now!” PJ Mara warned.

Those were the last words the British newspaper journalist heard as he crossed the threshold into Charlie Haughey’s office in Merrion Street in Dublin.

It was January 1990 and Haughey was at the height of his powers.  As President of Europe he was about to preside over the ending of partition … alas, in Germany – not Ireland.

The often embattled Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach had spent the previous two decades boxing off the political ropes. Now the tide had turned and he was enjoying some success – in large part thanks to the work of Patrick Joseph Mara, his loyal and hard-working press secretary.

The British journalist, being shown a yellow card before he even got on the pitch, was a good example.  The interview was granted under strict terms and conditions. There would be no harking back to the 1970 trial where Haughey was eventually acquitted of collusion in importing arms into the North.  Up to then the British media rarely referred to Haughey without adverting to the 1970 incident.

Mara, a long-time friend had stood by Haughey through the Arms Trial, and subsequently travelled the country with his future boss through the 1970s.  That was Haughey’s so-called “rubber chicken years” when he was constantly available for Fianna Fáil socials all over the country. Frequently, Mara and Haughey would return to Dublin at dawn after a lengthy return journey on bad roads.

In 1979, when Haughey executed his backbench putsch and became Taoiseach, Mara was not his first choice as press adviser.  But after a large number of senior political journalists turned down what they saw as the “job from hell,”  Mara was hired by default.

All of PJ Mara’s experience up to then was in business. But with his shrewd political judgement he soon learnt how to handle media.

His relationship with his boss and the media was often gritty at best. An incident in May 1984, at the height of internal Fianna Fáil strife, tells a lot.

Limerick dissident Des O’Malley had just been expelled from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party by a vote of 56 to 16. Mara was exuberant while briefing political journalists and he clowned about, goosestepping with his forefinger on his upper lip signalling a Hitler moustache.

“Uno Duce, Una Voce!” he joked – wrongly assuming his comments would be treated as off the record.  The slogan – “One Leader, One Voice” – dated from the era of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. It was seized upon by Haughey’s enemies and Haughey was furious with Mara and warned him to “put a button on your lip”.

The thing about Mara was that he was an incurable gossip who could not resist the lure of a good story and he was a champion mimic with a rapier wit. He traded on all these things – usually successfully – and he could charm journalists with his air of honesty in dishonesty, appearing to sell inside insights for favourable coverage.

During that 1990 EU Presidency, where this writer first encountered him, Mara cut a dash in Brussels and the other EU capitals, with his informality, air of good humour and plain speaking. He and others on the Haughey team did excellent work for Ireland projecting an image of a modernising and business-oriented country.  For all Charlie Haughey’s many flaws, foibles and misdeeds, that glowingly successful six-month stint stands the test of time.

But Haughey was soon on borrowed political time. Mara stood by him to the end until he was obliged to quit in favour of Albert Reynolds who was no friend of either Mara or Haughey.

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