By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
Every political push needs outriders. When Tony Blair wanted to float breaking the union link, he got Stephen Byers to do it. When Conservative modernisers of the time, such as Francis Maude and David Willetts, wanted to change the culture of the Conservative Party, they helped to set up C-Change. We will hear more from both next Wednesday when Bright Blue launches Modernisation 2.0.
The problems of Northern Ireland, where the Belfast flag protests began in December and are still continuing, is an unpromising venue in which to apply the principle. The armoured vans, whistling crowds and wailing sirens of Newtonwards Road are a long way away, in several senses, from the restrained surroundings of the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House, where both Willetts and Maude will be speaking next week.
But it's neither an endorsement of Byers not of, say, the A-list to argue that the DUP and Sinn Fein need outriders – that's to say, politicians who will take a lead in breaking new ground, as David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP did when they made their joint visit to the site of the Poyntzpass murders, where two friends – one Protestant, one Catholic – had been murdered.
True, the DUP and the Sinn Fein are harder-edged parties, though Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness work together well enough. But as the two largest parties in the Assembly, they are the main custodians of the process. The dissident republican groups have "not gone away, you know" – to borrow a phrase from Gerry Adams – and loyalist alienation seems to be rising. I wrote about it on this site recently. So did David McKittrick in the Independent this week.
In his new Red White and Blue column earlier this week on this site, Henry Hill suggested that there may, just, be an opportunity for the Northern Ireland Conservatives to fill the gap. The past is not encouraging: the Ulster Unionist/Tory "New Force" failed to win any Westminster seats in 2010. But someone, somewhere, needs to fill the gap. Theresa Villiers can't hold the ring on her own – no Secretary of State can.