IT’S UNLIKELY ANY other former government press secretaries will be mourned as publicly as PJ Mara has been over the last 24 hours, but then he was much more than that.
Mara played a central role in Fianna Fáil’s dominance of Irish politics in the late 80s and early 90s and was perhaps Charlie Haughey’s closest political confidante.
Between 1997 and 2007 he masterminded three consecutive election wins for Bertie Ahern. At the launch of the 2002 campaign he famously told journalists: “Okay folks, it’s showtime!”
Not long after the near obliteration of Fianna Fáil in 2011, Mara bemoaned the fact that he was too late to save the Brian Cowen government from meltdown, describing the events of that period as “political gaga”.
But his razor sharp political instinct sometimes let him down. Mara first came to public prominence in early 1985 after Charlie Haughey expelled Des O’Malley from Fianna Fáil while the party was in opposition.
In his book Mara PJ, Tim Ryan writes that Mara was facing questions on the implications of the expulsion in the days leading up to it with O’Malley considered a potential alternative party leader to Haughey.
The then-Fianna Fáil head of press is said to have bluntly declared that the questioning of Haughey’s leadership of the party would have to stop. He told political correspondents:
There’ll be no more nibbling at my leader’s bum.
The book says that Mara then drew on a history lesson from Colaiste Mhuire and declared: “Uno duce, una voce” or ‘one leader one voice’ – a quote infamously linked to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
To underline the point, Mara, who was prone to doing impressions, put his finger across his upper lip, like a moustache, and goose-stepped up and down the political correspondents’ room . The journalists present burst into laughter.
The phrase appeared towards the end of Sunday Press political correspondent Geraldine Kennedy’s column that weekend, but went largely unnoticed. It was only when Haughey’s strongest critic, Conor Cruise O’Brien, used it in his weekly Irish Times column the following Tuesday did it start to generate publicity.
Ryan writes that a war of words broke out between Kennedy and Mara about whether the phrase was on the record or not.
Kennedy insisted it was, but the spin doctor believed otherwise, claiming she was the only journalist in the room who believed the comment was for a publication. In an interview with Ryan for the book, Mara scathingly added:
No one else made a note, it was only a joke. But then humour was never Geraldine’s forte
The author writes that Mara was summoned by Haughey a few days later to explain the remark and the controversy it had generated.
He insisted to his boss that it had been a joke and bemoaned Kennedy’s lack of humour. But Haughey told Mara:
Yea, yea, yea. But for f*** sake, Mara, be careful in future, you must resist your base instincts. Put a button on your lip!
But the phrase stuck and was linked to Mara for life.
Ryan notes that some time later an Italian manager of the Shelbourne Hotel – where Mara regularly held court – was leaving for home when he approached PJ and declared that he would miss “my Mussolini”.
The departing manager shook Mara’s hand and added that his family in Italy had been great supporters of the fascist dictator.
Mara on Haughey drama: “I’m sure RTÉ will be, as usual, even handed and balanced”