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When real meaning can go spinning out of control

A meeting between the shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson and representatives of the UUP and DUP has been interpreted by some commentators as a sign three-party coalition could be imminent. It is a rather fanciful reading of some mundane facts.

A Conservative spokesman confirmed that Paterson did meet senior unionists in England at the weekend. The stated aim was to "promote greater political stability" in Northern Ireland.

On the political website Slugger O'Toole one blogger was quick to suggest that the Tories were shoring up unionist support in case the forthcoming General Election results in a hung Parliament. It is an analysis that sources in the DUP have been eager to encourage and Conservative sources have denied.

The truth is that there is an explanation that is simpler and much more plausible.

Negotiations over the devolution of policing and justice have reached a critical phase. Although the Conservative Party has insisted that its Ulster Unionist partner has the right to develop an independent strategy on policing and justice, both David Cameron and Owen Paterson have expressed their preference for early devolution. Sir Reg Empey, too, has consistently maintained that the UUP is not opposed to a Justice Minister at Stormont. At a crucial juncture in the policing and justice saga the Tories have simply brought the unionist factions together in an attempt to iron out their differences over this issue.

Certainly there is an agenda to the meeting. The Tories would like to overcome the justice logjam. At national and local level it has been more positive about the prospects of devolution than the UUP. No doubt Owen Paterson is eager to give the DUP an opportunity to address Ulster Unionist concerns.

Power-sharing institutions are once again teetering on the brink of collapse and Paterson is due to inherit any mess that might result. It would be surprising if a prospective Secretary of State were not engaged in attempts to keep the Assembly afloat. After all, some pollsters predict the Tories will be in government in less than six months' time.

Privately, local Tories are puzzled that a routine meeting has generated such an unusual degree of interest and they are suspicious that the 'unionist unity' theme has emerged.

The Conservative party has long considered the DUP's style and content incompatible with David Cameron's take on modern politics. There is deep distaste for the preoccupation of various DUP representatives with homosexuality and the sectarian overtones of some party pronouncements.

In contrast the DUP is eager to encourage any notion that a unionist pact is still possible. The party is nervous that the Ulster Unionists' Conservative link might prove attractive to voters and its uneasiness is exacerbated by poor performances in recent elections and political fallout over the Robinson scandal.

The DUP is desperate to avoid leaking thousands of votes to the 'New Force' and its strategists calculate that it might be able to offset the worst damage by appealing to 'unionist unity'. The party recently delivered 20,000 leaflets in the South Belfast constituency making the case for agreed candidates. It has wheeled out its big hitters, repeatedly, to drive home the message.

Conservatives and Unionists, meanwhile, maintain that every elector in Northern Ireland should be given an opportunity to vote for a candidate who can form part of the next Government. It is an aim in which the parties have too much invested to backtrack. In the wake of allegations over the DUP meeting the Tories have reaffirmed that all 18 constituencies here will be contested by UCUNF at the election. It suits the DUP to insinuate that the Tories' commitment is not set in stone. It also suits the SDLP to contend that the meeting potentially offends some principle of impartiality or that it represents a distraction.

In actuality few eyebrows would be raised if an opposition party from the Republic were to hold talks with the nationalist parties across the border. And if Owen Paterson can influence positively the practice of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, surely he has a responsibility to do so?

Although we are conditioned - not without good reason - to suspect politicians of all manner of deviousness, most often the most banal explanation is the more likely. On this occasion, despite the distorting lens of spin and counter-spin, the probable reason for Owen Paterson's pan-unionist meeting is rather dull, but important nevertheless.