James Downey: Just because Fianna Fail has revived in the polls doesn't mean it has reinvented itself
MONSIGNOR Dermot Lane, president of the Mater Dei Institute, thinks the Catholic Church should reinvent itself. Like Fianna Fail. I confess that this comparison comes as a surprise to me – and, I fancy, to most other political writers.
Fianna Fail and reinvention make for uneasy companions. Of course, the party has changed radically and often since 1926 – or 1991, or pick your own date. But it has not done so by deliberate, planned reinvention. Rather, it has managed this by a serious of mysterious, sometimes forced, often unconsidered contortions.
So has Monsignor Lane got it right when he seems to identify a firm reinvention plan, implemented over the past two years?
He is an acute observer of political as well as religious affairs. We should take his comments seriously. What is the evidence?
You could say that the party reinvented itself when it elected Micheal Martin as its leader. Mr Martin is quite unlike any previous holder of the office. Least of all does he resemble his immediate predecessor, Brian Cowen.
And his spokesman on finance, Michael McGrath, does not prompt the remotest comparison with any of those who performed the same role in the past.
Mr McGrath is the essence of "constructive opposition". His control of his brief is impeccable. He never strays into personalities or dubious proposals for policy changes. The more quietly he speaks, the more sensible he sounds.
But two swallows do not make a summer. Fianna Fail is a long way from reinvention. Its revival in the opinion polls reflects the return to the fold of many sheep lost in 2011, rather than any wider appeal. It has not shaken off the (entirely correct) perception that it bore the major share of responsibility for the economic crash.
It has never mastered – never tried to master – the art of apology. Perhaps Brian Cowen came closest the other day when he sounded both humorous and clever in this sensitive area. It was nice to get a glimpse of the real Cowen, so different from his image in the white heat of Merrion Street.
And Fianna Fail has not found a way to differentiate itself from Fine Gael. The old romance has gone the way of all romances, and writers increasingly look at it as "just another centre-right party".
On this part of the battleground, its main rival has a distinct advantage in that it has no need to redefine itself.
Notwithstanding Garret FitzGerald's flirtation with social democracy, Fine Gael has always been a conservative party. That has become more obvious in the present Dail, in which the traditional conservatives find themselves at odds with Young Turks influenced by fashionable right-wing theories.
There has always been a market for the first, if not for the second, and Fine Gael has no reason to change the brand.
One party of a very different kind has made strenuous efforts to reinvent itself. Sinn Fein peddles the line that it spent 30 years fighting for peace in Northern Ireland. In time, no doubt, memories will fade. For the moment, and despite the best efforts of the Mary Lou McDonalds and the Pearse Dohertys, the credibility gap will remain too wide.
But the party that has the most pressing need for reinvention is Labour. Whatever happens in the next year or two, it will come out of the general election in the same way that it came out of all the previous elections that followed its participation in a coalition, with a massive loss of Dail seats and doubts about its future.
It came into office ill-prepared for the economic horrors it encountered. It has spent much of its time trying to temper measures which it considered detestable.
It has gained little credit for easing the recent Budget. The easement was small, hardly worth the trouble. Again, Labour can, and presumably will when the time comes, claim that it helped to preserve social partnership. Will anybody listen?
Its leaders should accept that the election is already lost, and plan for opposition. The models are there: the European social democratic parties and the tremendous successes of Tony Blair's New Labour in Britain.
They should also prepare for the colossal scale of the task.
The same holds for Fianna Fail and for the Catholic Church. Niccolo Machiavelli said it 600 years ago: "There is nothing more difficult . . . more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the construction of a new order of things."
But reinvention is worth any amount of effort if it brings order to a shambolic party political system.