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Obituary: PJ Mara, political adviser to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey

 

File Photo Former Government Press Secretary PJ Mara has died."Fianna Fail Health Manifesto" PJ Mara at the launch of Fianna Fail manifesto on Health during the 2002 General Election Campaign. 9/5/2002 Photo:Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Former Government press secretary PJ Mara. Picture: Photocall Ireland

 

“GO out and kill for Fianna Fáil,” was one of PJ Mara’s battle-cries, but that voice has now been stilled.

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Mara, a legendary figure in Irish politics, died on January 15 at the age of 73 following a long illness.

Former press secretary to the Irish Government, Mara also served two terms in Seanad Éireann.

But it was as political adviser to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey that he achieved fame and notoriety.

In 1984 Haughey brought in his old friend PJ as Fianna Fáil press officer. Mara had supported Haughey, or El Diablo as he called him, in the lean years following the Arms Trial.

Anxious to rebuild his reputation, Haughey toured the country with Mara easing the way forward.

Mara, a charming, courteous figure, was an inspired choice.

Unlike most press secretaries, the flamboyant Mara became a household name, almost as well known a face as that of his boss. But during his time with Haughey he’d say: “I’m only the oil rag; the boss is the engine.”

A colourful character, satirical impressions of him on the RTÉ show, Scrap Saturday brought him ever greater fame. The sketch show was co-created by Dermot Morgan, later to become the titular star of Father Ted.

Mara was intelligent and well- read. Journalists warmed to him — he was a brilliant raconteur with scabrous stories about opponents and supporters alike.

On one celebrated occasion, however, his sure touch deserted him. Briefing journalists after yet another wrangle within the party, Mara said that party unity was paramount within Fianna Fáil.

To underline the point he used the famous old Italian fascist slogan of Mussolini: “Uno duce, uno voce,” adding: “In other words, we are having no more nibbling at my leader’s bum.”

The repercussions could have been severe. Conor Cruise O’Brien was merciless in The Irish Times: “One leader, one voice. That’s the way it was with the fascists from 1923 to 1944, and that’s the way it is with Fianna Fáil today.”

Haughey was furious. Mara, however, was a survivor, and weathered this storm, continuing to work for Fianna Fáil.

As Director of Elections he guided the party through the 1997, 2002 and 2007 general elections, getting much credit for the victories.

“OK folks, it’s showtime!” was how he launched Fianna Fáil’s 2002 election campaign. But Mara was an efficient operator. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern paid tribute to him on RTÉ saying: “He was a serious player. A tough, hardmanwhogotthejobdown.”

In 2002 Mara also came under the scrutiny of the Flood Tribunal. Mara told the Tribunal
that during his time as a Press Secretary, he did not earn enough, and experienced financial difficulties.

He admitted he received loans from businessman Oliver Barry and financier Dermot Desmond.

However there was no interest charge, nor any fixed schedule for repayment.

Desmond told the Tribunal he had lent £46,000 — the equivalent of about £250,000 today — to Mr Mara between 1986 and 1989.

In his subsequent report Judge Feargus Flood found that Mara failed to co-operate with the Tribunal by not disclosing an offshore bank account to the inquiry.

Outside politics, Mara operated a PR firm. He was later appointed to the board of Digicel, Denis O’Brien’s mobile phone company.

PJ Mara was buried in Galway on Sunday.

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Mal Rogers
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Mal Rogers is a columnist and reporter with The Irish Post

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