Sean O’Rourke: PJ Mara tribute
It was quite the introduction to political journalism. Charles Haughey was visiting his native Mayo in September 1980 for the unveiling of what Padraig Flynn described as Tablets on the wall of his birthplace in Castlebar. Most of the cabinet and Junior ministers were in attendance in a display of loyalty at a time of deep divisions in Fianna Fail.
It was in the Halal meat plant in Ballyhaunis during that visit that I first met PJ Mara, who had played a big part in Haughey’s accession to the leadership nine months earlier. Before nightfall, he was musing on the possibility of breaking the legs of a reporter who was minded to write something mildly disrespectful of his leader.
Jocose stuff, admittedly, but typical enough of his ability to utter the most scabrous observations about individuals. He once told me, with a straight face, that a very senior minister with whom he was angry at the time could neither read nor write. In ways, PJ Mara was in a perpetual state of Showtime.
Urbane, funny, well read, astute, tough, irreverent, mischievous, and political to the point of tribalism, PJ Mara was a larger than life figure who cut a colourful dash through the corridors of power in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, always impeccably dressed in a bespoke pinstripe or chalk striped suit from Maurice Abrahams Tailors.
He delighted in describing the weaknesses, foibles and indiscretions of individuals high up and low down. After a wobble by one reputed strongman in the white heat of a failed heave, PJ revelled in mimicking the TD’s reply when Haughey asked for his advice: “Ah sure, maybe Boss, you’ve suffered enough”
As a sailor, Haughey’s measure of reliability was whether he could trust someone in a boat going around the Mizen in a force 8 gale. The “Faithful Mara,” as he called him, was the ideal first mate. Mara believed that Haughey had been unfairly dismissed in the Arms Crisis and vowed to help him enjoy high office again.
On becoming minister for Health after Jack Lynch’s landslide in 1977, Haughey introduced Mara to Brendan O’Donnell, his chief civil service apparatchik. Without being told, they both knew their job was to work the teeming backbenches in preparation for a leadership contest. As Seamus Brennan put it, PJ’s job was to find out where the TDs itched so that Charlie could scratch. Their initial assessment gave Haughey 12 votes out of 84.
Probably his greatest asset was an ability to build civil if not friendly relationships on all sides, inside and outside the Party. He rolled with the punches and rarely took offence, befriending the most unlikely individuals, like Labour’s Frank Cluskey, whose excoriations of Haughey in the Dail easily matched those of Garret FitzGerald.
PJ Mara was not Charles Haughey’s first choice as party press officer on going into opposition after the three elections of 1981-’82, and was initially only given an “acting” role. If ever there was a poisoned chalice this was it; the party riven and a wide-eyed public devouring copies of The Boss in which Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh detailed phone tappiing and other scandals.
As Sean Duignan has observed, Mara knew he had no chance of convincing opinion formers that Haughey was of pristine character, so he casually used titles like El Caudillo, and El Diablo to reference his Boss, all the time opening doors that allowed Haughey to explain his policies. Il Duce fell into disuse after the incident when he goose-stepped around the Political Correspondents’ Room.
As government Press Secretary he effortlessly wooed the international media, most especially the British correspondents whose basic disposition towards Haughey was framed not just by the Arms Trial but by the Falklands War and his initial hostility towards the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985. Mara’s ability to recite the poetry of Philip Larkin and John Betjeman stood to him in those encounters.
Nor was he founding wanting when they sought out a quote at European summits, “It’s Mrs Thatcher versus the Universe” was one in particular that got the Reuters tickertape clacking from Brussels during another of the endless battles over the British rebate.
The end came quickly for Charles Haughey in 1992 when Sean Doherty revisited the phone tapping scandal. “Give us Barrabas,” Mara observed grimly when a poll showed more people believed Sean Doherty’s version of events.
While he secured lucrative private sector consultancies, PJ retained his strong links to Fianna Fail, pragmatically accepting that Haughey would have to be “cut adrift” by the party when details of Ben Dunne’s generosity became public.
Arguably, his contribution to the party was even more useful in the Bertie Ahern era. As Director of Elections he insisted on running fewer candidates resulting in fewer votes leaking away from the party oin later counts, with a resulting seat bonus.
“Go out and kill for Fianna Fail” was one of his battle cries, sometimes followed by a verse from the Legion of the Rearguard, with its fervent lines like “Eager and ready, for love of you they die.”
Never one to overstate his importance, Mara would occasionally insist in that self-deprecating way of his that he wasn’t the engine driver, only the oil rag. He was much, much, more than that..