Was PJ Mara really Charlie Haughey’s angel?
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.