Bertie's spin doctor faces new challenge

 

The Saturday Profile/Mandy Johnston: Mandy Johnston, Bertie Ahern's new media handler, is fiercely loyal to her boss. Michael O'Regan writes about her

Mandy Johnston has, no doubt, read the diaries of a predecessor, Seán Duignan, who was Albert Reynolds's press secretary during a turbulent era in Irish politics in the early 1990s. She might usefully read them again, as she comes to grips with her new job as the first woman, and youngest, government press secretary.

There is a consensus that she is highly intelligent, a hard worker, with good organisational skills and a wide range of contacts in the media. But the job is a demanding daily tightrope walk, capable of testing the most diligent and experienced media spin doctor.

She is more than press officer to the Fianna Fáil leader. She is the link between the Taoiseach and media, with the State's interests sometimes at stake as much as the image of Mr Ahern and his party. Reconciling the two will be the challenge she faces over the life time of the Government.

Duignan, one of RTÉ's outstanding broadcasters, had plenty of experience of the political world when he accepted the job from Albert Reynolds in 1992. He had been a Leinster House-based political correspondent for several years and had earlier turned down the post when offered it by Charles Haughey.

In his book, One Spin on the Merry-Go-Round, he wrote: "Looking back, I still wonder that I did it. It wasn't as if I was unaware of what it would involve. I had seen these fellows under pressure . . . I had particular experience of the demands on such as Frank Dunlop, Peter Prendergast, Liam Hourican, and, of course the ineffable P.J. (Mara). They all appeared to have wound up in a lousy job, working all the hours on the clock, as well as being endlessly on call."

Diggy noted in his diary in February, 1992: "They're all media mad here. This obsession with everything to do with the media cannot be over-emphasised - repeat cannot be over-emphasised."

Ms Johnston's boss, Mr Ahern, is no less obsessed by the media than any of his predecessors. But he is particularly skilled at keeping the lines of communication open to journalists, even in moments of crisis. He is, generally, accessible, courteous, rarely avoiding the waiting press corps at a public function in times of controversy. He is liked on a personal basis by many journalists.

So Ms Johnston starts with the advantage of a media-friendly Taoiseach, who is more at ease with journalists than some of his predecessors. Her duties will include taking journalists' calls, briefing the political correspondents in Leinster House, and liaising with the media when the Taoiseach travels around the country and abroad.

Handling the inevitable crises which surface, sometimes from nowhere, will be her biggest challenge.

She comes to the job with considerable experience, having worked in the press section of the FAI, in the Fianna Fáil press office, and, for the past five years, in the Department of Finance. One journalist who knows her well remarked this week that anybody who survived the politics of the FAI should be well able to deal with the machinations of government.

Mandy Johnston, who will be 30 next Thursday,and is single, was born in Nottingham of Irish parents. She has three sisters and one brother.

Her mother, Patricia, is from Longford, and her father, John, from Derry. When she was aged eight, her parents separated and she came to live in Longford with her mother.

Educated at the local Mercy Convent, her first job was in the FAI's administration section. She moved into the press section in 1990 when World Cup fever was at its height in Ireland. She travelled extensively with the team.

She first came to Mr Ahern's notice when she had contact with him about National Lottery funding for the FAI's development programme. Mr Ahern, then minister for finance, was clearly impressed by the young FAI official. When he became Fianna Fáil leader in 1994, she was among those hired to beef up party headquarters.

Her early days in the party's press office were not always tranquil. Such were the tensions between some individuals that Mr Ahern had to personally intervene. Ms Johnston's career continued to prosper, and she played a central role in the party's 1997 election campaign.

She advised Fianna Fáil politicians doing television and radio interviews and was the link with journalists covering a major pre-election rally staged by Mr Ahern in Cork.

She was, by then, highly regarded by Mr Ahern and his colleagues. Charlie McCreevy invited her to become press officer when he was appointed Minister for Finance.

Despite the onset of the Celtic Tiger, Finance was a tough brief. But she must take some of the credit for the fact that Mr McCreevy remains a political heavyweight, despite the controversies over individualisation, taxing of credit unions and the nomination of Hugh O'Flaherty to the European Investment Bank.

Part of her job was to ensure that Mr McCreevy, who sometimes cannot resist the colourful or controversial remark, was kept in line. The Taoiseach and other Ministers sometimes sought her support when dealing with Mr McCreevy's stubborn side.

What one journalist has described as her "firebrand" personality antagonised some sections of the media. She has an abrasive side, which will have to be curbed in her new job.

She is currently pursuing a libel action against the Star newspaper following an article referring to her some years ago. Sources at the paper say that it will be "robustly" defended.

As with all press officers, the view of her among journalists is mixed.

Fiercely loyal to her boss and party, she occasionally gave the impression to some journalists of almost taking personally negative media coverage of the Minister. Others who have had contact with her, since her early days in Leinster House, have found her to be highly competent, efficient and reliable.

One senior Fianna Fáil source remarked on her appointment that she would be "tough" with the media, not realising that the main attributes of a good government press secretary are application, diplomacy and judgment.

Away from politics, Ms Johnston nurses a fanatical interest in sport and also likes walking. She has a wide circle of friends, including some journalists. She has been a close friend for many years of the former Fianna Fáil minister, Mary O'Rourke.

Gregarious, witty and outgoing, she is said to be good company. Her friends testify to her personal loyalty to them, and her humanity. They have little doubt that, following her meteoric rise, she will make a success of her new job.