Saturday 14 December 2019

Obituary: PJ Mara - A cultured and affable lover of life but with ruthless streak

PJ Mara with his wife Breda. Photo: Ann Egan
PJ Mara with his wife Breda. Photo: Ann Egan
PJ Mara was later an adviser to Denis O’Brien. Photo: Tom Burke
PJ Mara at the launch of Fianna Fail manifesto on Health during the 2002 General Election Campaign.Photo: Leon Farrell/ Newsdesk Newsdesk

'And remember, none of that ol' Arms Trial shite now!" PJ Mara warned.

That advice to a British newspaper journalist came seconds before an interview with Charlie Haughey in January 1990, when he was at the height of his powers as President of Europe.

The often embattled Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach had spent the previous two decades frequently boxing off the political ropes. Now he was enjoying some success - in large part thanks to the work on image rehabilitation by Patrick James Mara, his loyal and hard-working press secretary.

The interview was granted on strict condition of no reference to the 1970 trial where Haughey was acquitted of collusion in importing arms into the North, which was then in ferment.

Though Haughey was 18 years older than Mara, the pair had much in common. They were both lower middle class northside Dubliners; Haughey the son of an army officer and Mara the son of a garda, and in both cases their fathers had died young.

PJ Mara was born in Drumcondra in 1942 and educated at Coláiste Mhuire. Yesterday, he died at the Beacon Clinic in Dublin, aged 73.

Both Mara and Haughey were intelligent, well educated, ambitious and each also had a ruthless streak. Their biggest common denominator was the Fianna Fáil party which Mara joined in 1963 and served with in many capacities, including standing unsuccessfully for Dublin City Council and the Seanad, later being twice appointed Senator by his boss.

Seanad membership gave him access to the Leinster House members' bar, where he hoovered up gossip for his boss. But he was more at home in political backrooms and regarded his desk as somewhere to rest his feet.

"I shudder to think," was his response when asked once how his life would have been had he been elected to Dublin City Council.

Haughey was more usually Mara's very demanding boss, never far off delivering severe rebukes when things did not go as hoped. The relationship launched PJ Mara into the world of press and public affairs. It also made Mara a household name via the satirical radio show 'Scrap Saturday' in the early 1990s, which starred the late Dermot Morgan.

Once Haughey exited politics in 1992, Mara became a successful freelance lobbyist whose clients included businessman Tony Ryan, and others. More recently, he worked for Denis O'Brien. But he also returned to politics and Fianna Fáil, linking up with Haughey's old protégé Bertie Ahern to win three general elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

Here, Mara was the three-time winning director of elections who showed himself the supreme political strategist, working on a ruthless, and often unpopular, candidate strategy which maximised seat gains.

Mara had stood by Haughey through the Arms Trial, and subsequently travelled the country with his future boss in the 1970s. It was Haughey's so-called 'chicken and chips 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 over bad roads.

After 1979, when Haughey managed via backbench support to become 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 work experience up to then was in business, having set up a successful textile business which he later sold to Penneys. But with his shrewd political judgment, he soon learned how to handle media.

The gritty nature of his relationship with his boss and the media is shown by an incident in May 1984, at the height of internal Fianna Fáil strife. Limerick dissident Des O'Malley had just been expelled from the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party by a vote of 56 to 16. An over-exuberant Mara was 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 on by Haughey's enemies and Haughey was furious with Mara, warning 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, 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.

PJ Mara was an affable bon viveur who was fun to be with and very generous with his time. But he was a very ruthless adversary, and he did not suffer fools gladly.

He was intensely loyal to his own political party and the leaders he served, and relentless in the pursuit of power at all costs. On occasion, he was not above telling his bosses some home truths, paying the price for telling Haughey about his errors - but faring better when he told Bertie Ahern to "ditch" his notorious anoraks.

PJ Mara also flourished in an era of media and politics which was much simpler. There were scarcely two dozen important political journalists with whom he had to make terms, and social media either did not exist or was just beginning.

He was a dapper man who was a constant smoker and a social drinker, who for many years prided himself on being an early riser - no matter how late he stayed up socialising. Above all, he was an exceptional hard worker who often found it hard to switch off.

He always kept his family life private. His beloved wife, Breda, died in 2003 and they had one son, John, who survives him. More recently, he has been with his partner, with whom he had a baby daughter in summer 2013.

Irish Independent

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