Was PJ Mara really Charlie Haughey's angel?

Drama may overstate the power of the former press secretary, but PJ Mara has survived many of his political masters – and thrives still

 

Many of his contemporaries were put out to political pasture, but PJ Mara, the late Charles Haughey’s former press secretary, has not only survived. He appears to have thrived.

The passing years have failed to diminish the energy and influence of this serial reinventor, whose younger self is portrayed by actor Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in the current RTÉ drama Charlie.

The Flood Tribunal’s 2002 ruling that he had failed to co-operate with it forced him to resign as Fianna Fáil’s campaign director in the Nice referendum, but it did not slow him down. He became a father again aged 71 in the summer of 2013 and travels frequently as a member of businessman Denis O’Brien’s Digicel board.

The current TV series portrays Mara as having more power than he actually had at the early stage of Haughey’s political career, which has prompted some level of disquiet in Fianna Fáil circles.

Others regard the lively presentation of the CJ and PJ double act as a dramatic device to establish two strong characters quickly in viewers’ minds.

Eileen Gleeson, a former presidential adviser who also worked for Charles Haughey, has known Mara for more than 30 years and insists the ex-taoiseach could not have scaled the heights of power without his trusted adviser.

“I really do not think there is anybody else that could have had the same level of influence. What PJ brought to Charlie was the things that Charlie didn’t have,” Gleeson says.

“PJ could get on with the common man. He was as comfortable having a drink with academics in Doheny and Nesbitts and the Unicorn as he was dealing with the cranky constituent.”

His handling of the media in the 1980s was deft but controversial. His “uno duce, una voce” remark after Des O’Malley lost the Fianna Fáil whip midway through the decade was memorably illustrated with a goose-step across the political correspondents’ room at Leinster House.

Gleeson’s assessment is that media in the 1980s was beginning to become more questioning and investigative, and Mara provided an effective counterpoint.

“The public wanted to see them inquiring a bit more, and PJ was so well able to deal with that. Charlie was more dismissive of their intrusion.”

She reckons resilience is one of the hallmarks of Mara’s character. “One of the reasons he got on well with Charlie was that he doesn’t sweat the small stuff or get annoyed if somebody is difficult to deal with.

“Working with Charlie and the media you needed to have a tough skin. He’s able to just move on really quickly.

“I know very few people who have that ability, that character in them, not to be stubborn or respond negatively. Only somebody like that could have got on with Charlie and then Bertie as well.”

Following Haughey’s departure from office, Mara occupied himself with private sector public relations in the early 1990s .

But he returned to the political fray to orchestrate Fianna Fáil general election campaigns fronted by fellow Drumcondra man Bertie Ahern in 1997 and 2002.

“OK folks, it’s showtime!” was his theatrical opener for the 2002 campaign in the Shelbourne Hotel’s ballroom.

He has served on the board of Digicel, Denis O’Brien’s Caribbean telecommunications company, since December 2003.

“Denis has huge time for PJ. They like each other on a human level,” Gleeson says. “He and I started working for Denis O’Brien at the same time [on the Esat Digifone project in 1994]. PJ’s still with him, still doing that big travel-the-world stuff, which sounds fantastic but is really hard work.”

Mara retains friends across the political divide. He meets former minister for finance Charlie McCreevy for dinner regularly, and former Fine Gael Seanad leader and current NUI chancellor Maurice Manning counts him as a good friend.

Manning says: “I trust him. He’s a believer in friendship and loyalty. It may sound a bit sentimental, but they are things that as you get older you value.”

Are his friends blind to his faults?

“Most of my friends are sinners at this stage of my life, including myself, so I’m not blind to anybody’s faults.”

Manning’s belief is that Mara is “a much bigger person” than can be represented by focusing on any particular aspect of his life or career. “He’s the very best of company, has very good judgment, a sharp tongue, and his assessment of any situation is worth having. He’s had rough times. He’s had his down times. People only see him when he’s doing well.”

Mara’s origins were documented in a biography by communications consultant Tim Ryan. Mara’s father, originally from Co Meath, was a Garda based in Dublin’s Store Street who died when Mara was young. His mother, from Co Galway, brought up Mara and his sister in Drumcondra’s Millmount Avenue.

After leaving Coláiste Mhuire, the Christian Brothers secondary school on Parnell Square, he worked in Boland’s Mills briefly before securing a job in Allied Textiles in Chapelizod.

He set up his own clothes company, Beeline, named after his wife, Breda, which he sold to Penneys. Later he went into the carpet distribution business, which was not so successful. Mara and Breda, who died in 2003, had a son, John.

Mara and his current partner welcomed a daughter in June 2013.

Soccer pundit Eamon Dunphy was a handful of years behind Mara at St Patrick’s National School in Drumcondra and later remembers seeing him going off to dances. “He’d always cut a smart figure. We were corner boys, as we used to be pejoratively called, but PJ would always stop to have a chat with us street kids,” Dunphy said.

Mara 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.

One if his successors as government press secretary, Mandy Johnson, who has known Mara for 20 years, says the Scrap Saturday image was hilarious but inaccurate.

Mara’s astuteness and genuine influence on Fianna Fáil’s electoral success for so many years cannot be overestimated, she contends. “He’s so influential in the party. From west Cork to Mayo to Longford, his name has such influence with grassroots in the party,” Johnson says.

“He’s the one they can ring. He took care of conventions. He understands the numbers. At the end of the day it’s about the candidates and getting them elected. He’s the one who knows how to do that.”

She says Mara was unusual in the Leinster House bubble because he was liked by both media and politicians. “He just gets away with stuff that other people don’t get away with. He’s a likeable rogue.”

But this roguish image is balanced by an ability to deliver a spectacular dressing down when he feels it is required.

Johnson says: “There is a tough side to him. He can be quite lethal, very direct with candidates and politicians. He puts the best foot forward and has a comfortable and nice demeanour but he’s a very tough businessman. He knows how to get the best out of people, but he also knows how to tell people what to do.”