PJ Mara: Faithful political operative who flattered to deceive

Savvy Fianna Fáil strategist whose loyalty to party and political tribe trumped probity

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.

 

Everybody in the media liked PJ Mara. Even journalists who didn’t like what PJ stood for, liked PJ personally.

And therein lies a problem because there is much more to PJ Mara’s legacy than an affable personality. That PJ Mara was witty and funny and likeable and good company is accepted by everyone.

But the legacy of his time in public life, a time he helped fashion, is very much with us today and is more than just memorable one liners and bonhomie.

The depth of cynicism that now pervades public life and the nihilistic distrust of virtually all politicians took root in the Haughey and Ahern years, two taoisigh Mara helped evade proper scrutiny by the media and sustain them in power.

As one veteran observer of Irish politics said yesterday: “In many ways, PJ was the acceptable face of Charlie to the media.”

He achieved this in part by, as another reporter has put it, managing to “keep reporters on side by wit, impudence and telling them to f*ck. off, something they love”. That fact that most journalists did indeed f*ck off was as much a media failure as a spin doctor success.

Journalists and politicians are supposed to have the sort of cosy relationship that’s actually a little uncomfortable for both. The spin doctor is usually the facilitator and arbiter of their love/hate affair.

The role of the political spin doctor has rarely been better portrayed than in the BBC television series The Thick Of It that ran in four series between 2005 and 2012. It starred Scottish actor Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker (it rhymes with – guess what?), a foul-mouthed but extraordinarily quick-witted British government press secretary who storms about the place as though the prime minister and colleagues whom he allegedly serves are mere functionaries to be shouted at.

PJ Mara’s language could be blue but he was not Malcolm Tucker, whose fictional character was based on spin doctors of recent vintage in the UK. However, he stoutly defended the indefensible to the point of being part of it and he was critical to sustaining Charles Haughey’s grip on Fianna Fáil – by manipulating the media and by his active involvement in behind-the-scenes campaigns of intimidation against Haughey’s internal party critics.

Later, after deeply serious allegations of financial irregularity had been levelled against Bertie Ahern, Mara nonetheless applied his election strategy genius to helping him win a third term as taoiseach.

‘Show time’

None of the question marks hanging over Haughey and Ahern seemed to matter to Mara. Loyalty to party and political tribe came before probity. Politics was, after all, “show time!”

But the eulogising that followed the announcement of his death on Friday was not uniform.

There were numerous online comments, many of them from Fianna Fáil supporters, that were complementary and expressed understandable fondness for the man. But others included assertions that he had been “a negative political influence, and a facilitator of the corrupt”; and that he was associated with politicians noted for cronyism and cute-hoor politics.

Those critical comments are justified, in my opinion. No lessons are learned about the degradation of politics, and the damage to good governance that has resulted, if that is not acknowledged.

Most online debates about politics attract a flurry of assertions that “all” politicians are corrupt and in receipt of “brown envelopes”, and all public servants are equally venal.

That is simply untrue. The majority of politicians, in all parties, are not on the take. Ditto the great majority of public servants.

Some undoubtedly are but the fact that so many people share the angry belief that all politicians and every arm of the State is corrupt, has much to do with the style of politics and the politicians that PJ Mara had us all laughing along with.

It is a corrosive legacy.

Peter Murtagh is co-author, with Joe Joyce, of The Boss – Charles J Haughey in Government, a study of the late taoiseach, his rise to power, those around him and his 1982 government; Poolbeg, Dublin, (1983 and 1997)