He was a hard worker, and key to the party for 30 years, says Bertie Ahern

PJ and I are both from Drumcondra, him from down around the prison officers’ club and me from up beside the Cat and Cage.

We knew each other from the time I got involved in Fianna Fáil just after 1970. He would have been working with Charlie, and from the time I met him is exactly 45 years ago, the summer of 1970. He moved out to Dublin North East with Charlie.

He was always a flamboyant personality — in those days he was with Breda. He was a big, tall man, he was always well dressed. He always spoke with his hands.

He was always colourful, sharp, and wanting to know what was going on, the names, the personalities. He never changed.

From Charlie’s sacking in May 1970, right through to Charlie becoming taoiseach in 1979, that decade, PJ was central to that, central to the machine that brought Charlie back.

I was working in the Mater at the time and I fed into Charlie’s health group so I would have had a lot of dealings with him. PJ was always PJ, he was Haughey’s election organiser and worker. He worked for him professionally later but at that stage he was a volunteer, and he gave a huge amount to work.

In terms of the dynamic, PJ was never the sort of guy to say how high should I jump, even though the Scrap Saturday liked to portray it as that. I can tell you, it was nothing like that. It was a good laugh and PJ saw it as a laugh but it was as far from the truth as the sun is to the moon.

When Charlie returned as a minister, PJ set about working on gathering the numbers of TDs for whenever a vote would happen. Frank Dunlop had been press secretary and when he moved on, PJ came in as interim press secretary and later took it up full time.

He was central to Haughey’s team throughout the 1980s, when there was five elections, three heaves, that whole saga. He was central to Charlie’s life and times.

Talk of fear and loathing in Fianna Fáil is a myth but because of the five elections and the three heaves, there was, of course, suspicion. All the way since the 1970s, the party had been divided between the Haughey and Colley wings, and the North and all of that remained until I came in and stopped that nonsense. But he was there through it all. PJ had to manage things so that the party wasn’t just about that. It wasn’t easy — it was never easy.

The way he looked at it, he blamed the Progressive Democrats for preventing Fianna Fáil from getting an overall majority in 1987, as they won 15 seats. PJ had to deal with all that and that wasn’t easy for him.

In 1990, we had Brian Lenihan having to go to keep the PDs on side and it was rollercoaster stuff and traumatic. PJ was hugely close to Brian as well as Haughey and, all of a sudden, he had to go. It never settled for Charlie after that.

As I recall it, he could have stayed if he wanted when Charlie left. Albert Reynolds knew PJ had great contacts in the party but PJ had made up his mind and he left and Sean Duignan came in.

He was keen to go back to business. After that he went off into the private sector, dealt with the very top levels in business, guys like Tony Ryan. He proved himself to be formidable dealing with international journalists, so he had some career.

When I became leader in 1994, he came back in on my electoral committee with Ray MacSharry, Gene Fitzsimons, Jim Tunney, and he did that from 1994 until I left in 2008.

He wasn’t just my director of elections, he was on the committee so he was there discussing strategy, tactics as we went along. They were my team, the keys guys that drove everything.

When it came to advertising, promotions he was a key guy. His “showtime” quip at the start of the 2002 general election reflected that we knew we were likely to win that election. We weren’t under pressure, we just had to stay alive. But he came in that day — “Showtime lads” — and it all went mad.

After I was gone, I often heard rumours that people wanted him to come back, that he gave advice and maybe it wasn’t taken, but he made it clear he wasn’t getting involved anymore.

We had a long meeting last year before he went back into hospital in the Skylon, but I hadn’t been going up and down to the hospital because I wanted to remember him as he was. At that meeting, we spent hours talking about good times gone past.

He was a great friend and we are proud of our Drumcondra roots. My sympathies to his partner, his family, and his many friends.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern in conversation with Irish Examiner Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

 


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