Former government press secretary PJ Mara dies

Tributes paid to ‘most effective campaign director in Irish political history’

PJ Mara has died at the age of 73. As press officer to Fianna Fáil he guided them to government under Charles Haughey and later to three consecutive terms under Bertie Ahern. Harry McGee reports.

 

Tributes have been paid to former government press secretary PJ Mara, who has died aged 73.

A flamboyant, larger than life character who played a central role in Fianna Fáil for more than three decades, Mara was Charles Haughey’s press officer and confidant in the 1980s and Bertie Ahern’s director of elections for each of the three-in-a-row victories between 1997 and 2007.

He died early on Friday morning at the Beacon Hospital, Dublin.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said it was with great sadness that he learned of Mara’s death. “On behalf of the Fianna Fáil party I wish to extend our condolences to his family,” he said.

“In a series of general elections as well as the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement PJ proved himself to be the most effective campaign director in Irish political history. He brought immense humour, judgement and commitment to the role.

“As government press secretary for five years he brought a new energy and professionalism to the role which was recognised throughout Europe during the 1990 Presidency of the European Council.”

Former Fine Gael Seanad leader and current NUI chancellor Maurice Manning counted him as a good friend. “He brightened up any company he was in. He had a genuine interest in all people and in the absurdities of human life, especially in politics where there are many,” he said.

Tánaiste Joan Burton said she was very sad to hear about his death and said she felt there were probably two PJ Maras.

“One was the private PJ who as we know was a dedicated of Fianna Fáil and successive Fianna Fáil taoisigh over a long period of time. . . I think there was another PJ Mara and that’s the PJ Mara that we got to know from “Scrap Saturday,” a larger than life character that I certainly used to listen to with awe in my kitchen on a Saturday morning.”

Soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy was a handful of years behind Mara at St Patrick’s National School in Drumcondra. “I’ve known him for 60 years. He was a fabulous guy. He had the gift of friendship. He was erudite, very well read and very funny,” Dunphy said.

“He was a multi-layered, multi-faceted man. The notion that he was Huaghey’s gopher is not real.”

Digicel chairman Denis O’Brien described Mara as an amazing friend and colleague. Mr O’Brien said he made “an indelible impression on everybody he worked with”.

Mara, who took over the position as Fianna Fail press officer in 1984 when the party was in Opposition, quickly established himself as one of the features of Leinster House and did invaluable work for Haughey in mending fences with the media.

He became a household name when he featured in Dermot Morgan’s satirical radio programme, Scrap Saturday, in which he was caricatured as a lackey dancing attendance in response to Haughey’s sinister-sounding growling of his surname.

After Haughey lost power in 1992 Mara went into business for himself as a PR advisor/lobbyist to a number of prominent business figures including Tony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien.

He continued his involvement in politics acting as director of elections for Fianna Fail in 1997, 2002 and 2007. He was given a lot of the credit for the party’s stunning performances in those elections.

He was embroiled in controversy when it emerged at the Flood Tribunal that he had received substantial interest free loans in the 1980s from businessmen Dermot Desmond and Oliver Barry. He bounced back from this finding, as from every other setback, with quips and funny stories that disarmed most of his critics.

A loyal party man till the end as recently as the resignation of Senator Averil Power from the party he attempted to convince journalists who sought his view that it was the best thing to have happened to the party in years.

Mara’s funeral mass will take place at 4pm on Saturday at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin. Burial Sunday at 3pm, Kinvara, Co Galway.