SECRET talks between Northern Irish politicians held at Hatfield House a few days ago have exploded into controversy.

Conservative Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson organised a meeting between Protestant politicians on January 16 and 17 at the Jacobean mansion, whose owners, the Cecil family, have a tradition of favouring unionism.

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionists (DUP), who has temporarily stepped down as the province's First Minister to deal with his wife's admission of an affair and allegations of financial irregularities, was at the meeting, as were representatives of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The always delicate political situation in Northern Ireland is at a crisis point, with the DUP and their Catholic coalition partners Sinn Fein deadlocked over whether the devolved administration should take over control of policing.

No Catholics or nationalists were invited to Hatfield House, and The Guardian Politics Blog has speculated Mr Paterson is trying to forge a unionist alliance to stop Sinn Fein, firmly linked to the IRA, becoming the province's largest party.

It quoted a "senior government source" saying: "We are simply astonished at what the Tories are doing. The Northern Ireland peace process has been strengthened by the bipartisan approach between all major parties at Westminster. Holding talks at a country estate and excluding the nationalists is absolutely not within that spirit."

The talks have also been criticised by moderate nationalists and the Lib Dems, but defended by Conservatives as an honest attempt to resolve the impasse.