Bertie Ahern leads tributes to 'loyal and good friend' PJ Mara

Bertie Ahern leads tributes to 'loyal and good friend' PJ Mara
PJ Mara, pictured in 2006. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

By Daniel McConnell, Irish Examiner Political Editor

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has led tributes to PJ Mara, the former Fianna Fáil spin-doctor turned businessman, who passed away this morning.

Mr Mara, who was most famous for his central role in former Taoiseach Charles J Haughey’s controversial time as leader of the country, went on be Ahern’s Director of Elections in 1997, 2002 and 2007.

The former Government Press Secretary, who was Charles Haughey's enforcer and close confidante, had been in hospital since late last year and died overnight.

Mr Haughey resigned in 1992 and PJ Mara went into the private sector shortly afterwards, where his skills were in demand and clients included Tony O'Reilly, Tony Ryan and Denis O'Brien.

Requiem Mass for Mr Mara is to take place tomorrow at 4pm at St Mary's Church, Haddington Road. His body will then be brought for burial on Sunday at 3pm to Mount Cross Cemetery, Kinvara, Co Galway.

Speaking on RTE Radio, Mr Ahern said Mr Mara “was a really loyal and good friend” to him.

“I have been close to him since the early 1970s since I joined Fianna Fáil. I knew him from growing up in north Dublin and we all knew each other. PJ was a wonderful person. He was hugely clever and smart. He could handle any situation. The most tense battles in Leinster House – PJ would be at the heart of it. He was never one to dodge a fight as some people do in politics.

“But he was always a bit of fun when the rocks and bottles were flying in Leinster House. Some of the schemes he would come up to get out of the mess were brilliant. There was nobody better to be spending time. I travelled the length and breath of the country with him in the 1970s –and he was always wonderful company."

The former Taoiseach said Mr Mara had made a huge contribution to Irish political life and he had a wide array of friends from across the political spectrum.

“PJ was never afraid to stand at the top of a room or push people aside if they got in his way in the political corridors. I had loads of great times with him – wondering how we would get Charlie [Haughey] to calm down and save all our skins,” he said.

PJ Mara
PJ Mara

Mr Mara himself faced controversy in 2002 when the Flood Tribunal found he had failed to cooperate as he had not disclosed an offshore account he had held in the Isle of Man.

In more recent times, he was a director of Mr O'Brien's Digicel company.

Mr Mara said he did not mind the portrayal of him in the recent RTÉ drama 'Charlie', saying like Scrap Saturday it kept the middle classes happy.

On the same programme, broadcaster Eamon Dunphy also paid tribute this morning.

“He was always a distinguished figure. Even as a kid, he always had a presence about him. He was always going somewhere. He was a brilliant man and very erudite."

In one anecdote, Mr Dunphy recalled a story about Mr Mara being the "perfect host" to two representatives from the British Government who had been sent over after Charlie Haughey was elected leader of Fianna Fail.

"He held court in the Horseshoe Bar and was so charming, you could see these guys 'well is this is press guy, what's the leader like'?

"He was brilliant at his job and he understood politics," Mr Dunphy. "He knew how to win elections - you have to remember he was at the heart of three political victories for Fianna Fáil."

Mr Mara served on the board of Unicef Ireland, and its chairman Paul Connolly paid tribute:

"While PJ was best known for his work in the political and communications sphere, it was his deep personal commitment to the cause of children's rights that drew him to support UNICEFs work for children throughout the world.

"PJ was a valued director of Unicef Ireland and he brought his vast experience to bear in support of the board of directors.

"PJ made a huge contribution to Unicef and he will be sadly missedFormer ICTU General Secretary David Begg also paid tribute this morning and offered his condolences to Mr Mara's family.

"I didn't know PJ all that well but I met him a number of times over the years and he always struck me as being an extremely nice man.

Personal friend and journalist David Davin-Power told RTE Morning Ireland that PJ "never forgot where he came from".

"He knew how the media worked, he knew you had to be a bit of a comedian at times," he said.

"He was very likeable, the kind of figure you don't really see nowadays but could still give a tongue-lashing to men like myself.

A 'true original'

In a statement this morning, Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin described him as a "true original" who brought immense humour, judgement and commitment to his role.

PJ Mara was first known to many through Dermot Morgan's portrayal as Charlie Haughey's henchman on Scrap Saturday.

But that portrayal only scratched the surface of his contribution to Haughey and Fianna Fáil.

'Diabolical powers'

He joined as its press secretary in 1983 - and after four years work helped guide the party back into power in 87, then becoming government press secretary.

Taoiseach Charles Haughey with PJ Mara (then  Government Press Secretary) during the General Election, 1989. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Taoiseach Charles Haughey with PJ Mara (then Government Press Secretary) during the General Election, 1989. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Former Fine Gael TD and Senator Maurice Manning was a close friend - he has said PJ had friends across the political divide: “I know when I was first in Fine Gael, that we ascribed diabolical powers to him, I mean we thought he really was the master of the black arts.

“And he wasn’t bad at the black arts of politics. ..But I got to know him, we both liked a pint, we both had a bit of a sense of humour and saw the world in a bit the same way.

“And that friendship grew over 30 years and even in the height of an election campaign we would sit down and have a pint.”

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea has said PJ bridged the gap in the party, created by Charlie Haughey: “PJ was the lad who softened Haughey’s hard edges and retained a bridge even to the most determined dissidents

“Behind all that, affability and personability, they lurked in a very, very shrewd, very acute brain. He was a first class political operator, first class public relations man and really an all-rounder.”

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