The Conservative spokesman for Northern Ireland held secret talks with the leadership of the DUP and UUP at the weekend, it was revealed last night.
The Tories hosted the talks in England, which were attended by their political partners in the UUP.
However, a top-level DUP delegation of Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson was also believed to have been present.
A Tory spokesman said: “Mr Paterson held private talks with a number of senior unionist politicians in England over the weekend, the purpose of which was to help promote greater political stability. Mr Paterson holds many private meetings and we will be making no further comment on the details.”
It has been suggested that the talks were aimed at securing unionist support for the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament after the general election.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness met the British and Irish governments last night as efforts to strike a deal on devolving policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly reach a critical phase.
He held separate discussions with Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, while Democratic Unionist leaders also had top-level talks with government officials after a further day of negotiations.
Last night, Mr Woodward met representatives of the main parties amid concerns that talks may have hit problems as pressure mounts for a settlement to stabilise the power-sharing government.
Earlier, both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists briefed representatives from the other political parties in the Assembly on the state of the marathon talks.
With fears that a breakdown could trigger the collapse of the fragile institutions, as more time passes without a deal, republicans will undoubtedly crank up pressure on the thus-far hesitant DUP to move.
Troubled DUP leader Peter Robinson and Acting First Minister, Arlene Foster met delegations from the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance, while Mr McGuinness held discussions with the three minor parties in separate talks. The high-level exchanges continued throughout the afternoon.
While hopes of movement in the long-running wrangle over transferring law and order responsibilities from Westminster have been mounting over recent days, the mood of optimism was less in evidence inside Parliament Buildings yesterday amid fears of last-minute stumbling blocks.
According to the DUP, there remain three issues to resolve — who will be the new justice minister, how he or she will work with Executive colleagues, and how controversial parades will be managed in future.
But it is understood wider political matters — such as education reform and Sinn Fein's desire for legislation to protect Irish languages speakers — have also featured in negotiations.