PJ Mara: five attributes that defined former strategist
Part of the reason Mara was effective was his character traits made him well suited to role
A file image from 2007 of then Fianna Fail director of elections PJ Mara at an election press conference in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern (right) talks to PJMara at a party dinner at the Burlington in 1996. Photograph: The Irish Times
PJ Mara, who died on Friday, proved himself to be the one of the most effective campaign directors in Irish political history.
He had a number of character traits that made him well suited to the role, including a sense of sense of humour, astute judgment and a commitment to the role.
Here are five of his key attributes.
Loyalty: This worked for him and against him. At a very early stage he aligned himself to Charles Haughey. During Haughey’s wilderness years after the Arms Trial in the 1970s, it was Mara who travelled the length and breadth of the country with him to meet with local cumainn on the so-called “chicken and chips circuit”.
Erudite and witty presentation: He used wit and sometimes outrageous parody to win over the press corps. His colourful descriptions helped humanise the bristly and moody Haughey. He also built up the image of Haughey as an imperious Napoleon-like figure.
There were copious references to Haughey as Caudillo or El Diablo. That informal style rebounded on him when Haughey moved against his arch rival Desmond O’Malley.
Mara came into the briefing room saying facetiously “Uno Duce, uno voce”. He added: “There will be no nibbling at my leader’s bum”. He then proceeded to goose-step up and down the room.
When that incident was reported straight by Geraldine Kennedy, Haughey hit the roof. Similarly, a candid interview Haughey gave to Mara’s friend John Waters for Hotpress included a quiver of expletives.
When Waters quoted him verbatim, Mara had to summon the help of Brian Lenihan to convince the enraged Haughey the use of so many ‘f’ words would appeal to younger voters.
Party fealty: Fianna Fáil was a national movement as much as a party in Mara’s time. He was a lifelong activist to the party as well as to Charles Haughey. He also stayed active within Fianna Fáil, and was director of election under Bertie Ahern.
He was a very good strategist and was responsible for the decision to minimise the number of candidates in order to maximise the seat bounce.
The strategy worked really well in 2002. He chaired the party’s electoral campaign committee in 2011 even though the party was facing meltdown. He was also involved, on and off, in the party’s efforts to revive its fortunes in recent years.
Strategist: While he never worked full-time for Fianna Fáil after Haughey’s departure, he remained a central figure in the party. He was director of elections for Bertie Ahern three times and remained as chair of the election campaign committee right up to 2011.
It was he along with Seán Donnelly and Charlie McCreevy who convinced Ahern to reduce drastically the number of party candidates in general elections. That boosted its seat numbers as it ensured votes were not spread among too many candidates, leading to transfers being dispersed and lost. An excellent organiser, his most successful campaign was the high-octane “Showtime” one in 2007 that saw Ahern returned to power for a third time.
Toughness and cynicism: He could as dismissive as Haughey and could also verbally attack with the same degree of aggression. In private, he could describe rivals in derogatory fashion. “A fat f**ing lazy vain jackass,” is how he put down own long-serving Fianna Fáil minister. His loyalty to the party and to Haughey was unquestioning. In the context of the avalanche of contradictory evidence, detractors suggested his approach and disposition was cynical.