Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has accused the Tories of jeopardising the Northern Ireland peace process for the sake of party political advantage.
His attack follows the disclosure that shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson convened secret talks between the two main unionist parties at the country estate of the Marquis of Salisbury.
The move has prompted speculation that the Tories are attempting to establish a pan-unionist front to restrict the number of seats the nationalist Sinn Fein and SDLP can win in the general election.
Lord Mandelson — a former Northern Ireland secretary — accused the Conservatives of trying to exploit the situation in the province for their own ends.
“They're playing politics in Northern Ireland. They're seeking advantage for the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland at the expense of the peace process and the devolved government. It's very irresponsible and I suggest that they desist,” he said.
David Cameron however rejected suggestions that a Conservative government would be unable to treat the Northern Ireland parties in an even-handed way. He compared the Tories' relationship with the unionists to the close relationship Labour had with the SDLP.
“If you're making accusations that I can't be even-handed, you'd have to make the same accusation against the Prime Minister that he can't be even-handed,” he said.