PJ Mara was a unique character. Anyone who met him knew he made exceptional company, with his irreverent humour and his ability to understand the minutiae of even the most complex of discussions. He always brought fresh insight and while others puffed and panted and hovered around a subject, PJ walked in and cut through all the guff to tell it like it is and make people face reality.
He is probably the greatest political strategist the country has known. This won him many friends and just as many enemies. None of that bothered him. PJ had his friends and what anyone else thought he didn’t lose any sleep over. I met him a few times while he worked for Charles Haughey, just a handshake and a word here or there.
While I was a diehard partisan of Albert Reynolds and he was the man who made Haughey we somehow managed to always stay good friends. That was PJ. Business was business and friendship was another matter. He did what he had to do, he did his job and whatever it took to win. He always had the ability to be philosophical about it after and see the rights and wrongs and laugh about them.
While he was entertaining company you always learned something by listening. There was a wealth of advice always waiting. Sometime before the 1997 election I remember sitting in a Dublin Hotel late on in the night after a meeting.
At this stage all that was left were a few diehards and old networkers. PJ walked over to me and surveyed the room of mostly middle aged men. He sighed and said ‘Well I know I have to be here Johnny, but what the fuck are you doing here? You should be out on the town chasing young ones with big boobs and not sitting here like this.’ Looking back now he had a point.
Over the years that followed he was an endless source of advice. Always on the end of a phone always happy to give his thoughts. Some people move on and become bigger and more important. PJ never forgot.
He knew instinctively that it was people on the ground that made politics and whether he was meeting a world leader or a cumann chairperson he was the same man with both. He told me once that ‘no matter what happens, you never forget your friends’. He knew better than most about highs and lows.
He knew better than most that one day you are loved and the next you are a pariah. He knew that some people love you and some hate you. The point was that while all that is part and parcel of the world the people who are close should never turn their backs on each other no matter what.
I ran for the FF national executive in 1998 and PJ was again on the phone, telling me where to go and who to talk to. At an Ard Fheis he brought me into the bar and worked an entire room with me, laughing, joking and telling them all how to vote. He was a master of the art.
In later years when I turned to writing he encouraged me to put pen to paper with my first book ‘Party Time’. He kindly agreed to write the foreword of that book and I found out that when times got tough in later years he was true to his word.
He would not turn his back on you, he would not speak ill of you behind your back (though he might call you the odd name for writing something he didn’t like!) But PJ would be on your side when it came down to it.
I visited him in Hospital late last year. I wanted to thank him for everything. Although ill he waved it all away. He told me ‘I’ll miss this election but I’ll be ready for the next’. It was that optimism and strength that was his hallmark. He told me he had his radio and was keeping up to date, he even said he had heard me on it and then asked ‘What’s going on in Longford?’ Always the strategist, always the thinker.
He is someone who will be missed by the political world. Many detractors will point to failings but his ability was never in question. I think he would probably laugh and reckon one side wanted to make him a saint and the other side the devil himself.
He was just PJ. Take him or leave him. That was up to you. I won’t forget him or all that I learned from him, nor should any follower of political communication today. Yes he might rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, but he did his job and did it well.