THE Conservatives have rejected suggestions that David Cameron could abandon his party's alliance with the Ulster Unionists because of the revelation about secret UUP-DUP talks.
Yesterday morning Conservative Shadow Secretary of State Owen Paterson called an emergency meeting with UUP leader Sir Reg Empey to discuss the Orange Order-brokered December meeting which was attended by UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, UUP MLA David McNarry, DUP leader Peter Robinson and deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
It is understood that Mr Paterson's chief-of-staff Jonathan Caine and the Tories' Northern Ireland chairman, Tim Lewis, as well as UUP chairman David Campbell, were also in attendance.
After the meeting both Mr Paterson and Sir Reg issued statements re-affirming their commitment to the Conservatives and Unionists' project.
But privately, senior sources in both camps expressed deep unease, not only at the fact high-level discussions had taken place with the DUP, but that they had not been made aware of the meeting.
Mr Paterson said in a statement: "In his capacity as Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey regularly meets all strands of opinion throughout Northern Ireland. He referred 'in passing' to a meeting, requested in October and held in December, but I was not aware of the content or the participants."
Mr Paterson, whose diplomacy has been central to bringing the Tories and the UUP together, added: "As there was nothing of consequence arising from the meeting he did not mention it to me again.
"Sir Reg Empey has made clear to me that it has no bearing on our joint determination to stand together as 'Conservatives and Unionists' at the forthcoming Westminster elections to bring national, mainstream and non-sectarian politics to Northern Ireland."
Mr Lewis said that the Conservatives were "taking Sir Reg at his word and have accepted his explanation" of the December talks.
In a statement Sir Reg reiterated his support for the Conservative link and heavily hinted that nothing would come of the discussions with the DUP.
He said that Orange Grand Master Robert Saulters had requested "a private and confidential meeting to discuss ways and means of finding cooperation on the way forward".
"I have respected his request for confidentiality. Sadly this was not respected by others.
"Despite a conversation and discussion on the issues that Mr Saulters wished to raise, no agreements were reached."
Sir Reg added: "We are often asked to talk about unionist cooperation where possible and about how best to provide stability for the future of Northern Ireland.
"However the UUP is very much aware, given past history, that cooperation is not always achievable. Indeed it makes it much more difficult when a significant aim of one of the organisations you are dealing with is to destroy you.”
And, referring to the DUP’s current problems, he said: “We will not be used as an escape route for others who have significant political difficulties.”
However, referring to Sir Reg’s unity discussion’s with the DUP, a source close to the Conservatives said that he had to decide whether to go with the DUP or Conservatives as his electoral partner: “The ball is in his court, frankly.”
The Conservatives’ North Down nominee, Ian Parsley, said that there was “absolutely no question of a pact with the DUP”, claiming that Peter Robinson’s party “stood for isolation” from UK politics.
“The whole point of the Ulster Unionist-Conservative link-up is to deliver real influence to all levels of government on the issues that matter to people,” he said.