Bertie Ahern: I want to remember PJ the way he was: brilliant
Few have the capacity to deal with the number one in politics or business, my friend PJ Mara did both, writes Bertie Ahern
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
PJ was a great friend, a great colleague and a great Drumcondra man. I knew him for 45 years.
Maybe it's because I had worked with him so much, I wasn't in and out to the hospital. I wanted to remember him the way he was. I was only at his sister's funeral mass last week and his son, John, said to me "look, go up to him". But I couldn't.
The last long conversation I had with PJ was in the Skylon Hotel in Drumcondra. We just sat there for ages drinking tea and talking about times past, times present, and the times that were yet to come. His health wasn't great but we had a long and detailed discussion and it was as much fun as it ever was.
But it was clear to me he wasn't well. I knew it couldn't go on forever.
The PJ Mara I'll remember was a brilliant man. We had been good friends in the constituency, but our working relationship intensified when we went into Leinster House. There were three elections in 18 months and three heaves against Charlie. We were on the one side while a lot of other fellas were playing musical chairs, changing their minds on whether or not they would support Charlie. It was tough for PJ to keep Charlie calm on the one hand and go out fighting like a rottweiler on the other. But he excelled at it.
All through the Eighties when Haughey was in and out of power, PJ was there at his side, always. He was extraordinary when the pressure came on. The political correspondents would be going mad demanding answers, Haughey would be edgy, and half the parliamentary party would be going around giving out - and there was PJ playing the spoons. PJ was never Charlie's or anyone else's 'yes' man. I was there many times when Haughey would say something and PJ would say straight out, "you're wrong, boss".
Sure, Haughey might rant, but PJ would tell him "well, you're wrong but I'll do what you say". Now he'd no more do it. There was no way PJ would go to the political correspondents' room and try to sell proverbial horse manure to horse dealers. He just wouldn't do it.
He might say he'd do it, then he'd go check Haughey's diary to see if he was going to be around to watch the Nine O'Clock News. If the Taoiseach's diary was full, PJ would say "great, I'll forget about that". Charlie didn't carry grudges in the way people say he did. Each day was a new day and he'd start again. PJ never jumped up and down telling Charlie he was wrong. What he would do is leave him to cool down and then come back to say, "might this be a better way?".
When he went out of politics, there were plenty who wanted PJ back. Albert Reynolds wanted him to stay involved and there were suggestions other political parties wanted him, but he was never going to do that.
He went off and proved himself in business working with Tony Ryan in the early 1990s and then with Denis O'Brien.
There aren't many guys with the capacity to deal with the number one guy in politics or the number one guy in business. PJ did both with ease. When I took over as leader of Fianna Fail, I asked him to come back to be Fianna Fail's director of elections. He did that in Christmas 1994 and stayed with me all the way until the summer of 2008. He did the three general elections and, equally importantly, he did the job for me on the national campaign for the Good Friday Agreement.
Outside of elections, my great friend Chris Wall and himself talked on a daily basis on what I should and shouldn't be doing. It was Chris and PJ who told me to ditch the anorak. I was very offended as I'd been wearing an anorak since I was a kid, but they told me "you have to go down and see Louis Copeland and try and make yourself look respectable". They knew I'd listen because Louis was another Drumcondra boy and a friend of ours.
On a more serious note, PJ was a loyal and true friend to me always. I'll never forget how, at the launch of Alastair Campbell's book, The Irish Diaries, at the Ely Gallery in 2013, how PJ got up in front of a room full of people and spoke so kindly of me. He was almost over the top in his praise. The place was packed, but up he got and fought the battle for me. There was nothing more that you could ask from a friend. He was 100pc.
PJ was devoted to his late wife, Breda, and son John, and was by her side throughout her illness. He later found happiness again with Sheila and their daughter Elena. My thoughts and prayers are with them all at this time.
In conversation with Ronald Quinlan.