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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 May 2006, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
McConnell tribute to NI progress
Jack McConnell in Belfast
Mr McConnell said he has seen great changes in Belfast
Scotland's first minister has paid tribute to progress in Northern Ireland during a tour of Belfast.

Jack McConnell said that while evidence of sectarian divisions remain, he could sense the drive towards greater unity.

He said efforts were under way to deal with similar divisions in the west of Scotland but problems were not on the scale of those in the province.

He is due to stress the benefits of devolution when he addresses Northern Ireland Assembly members on Monday.

Mr McConnell spent Sunday visiting areas in Belfast including the Falls and Shankill roads where efforts have been made to improve housing and conditions for local people.

However, he also heard about the struggle to address continuing sectarian divisions.

I would want to be very clear that there are no divisions in Scotland on a scale that they have been here in Northern Ireland but there are divisions today
Jack McConnell
Scottish First Minister

Mr McConnell said that in the "few years" since he was last in Belfast there has been a significant effort at regeneration and an increased confidence.

He told reporters: "But clearly there is an awful lot still to do.

"I hope that by extending the hand of friendship between Scotland and Northern Ireland we can help with that development but also learn from it.

"I would want to be very clear that there are no divisions in Scotland on a scale that they have been here in Northern Ireland but there are divisions today.

Power-sharing

"We're dealing with those divisions, particularly where they are of a sectarian nature by bringing people together, encouraging dialogue and discussion and I think convincing people that when we have got communities that are shared it is important that we recognise different traditions."

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain invited Mr McConnell to Belfast to highlight the benefits of devolution.

Members of the assembly are expected to try to elect a power-sharing executive on Monday.

The first minister's visit follows a speech in Belfast by Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson at an SDLP conference on sectarianism.

Her key message was that devolution had helped Scotland to tackle the problem of religious hatred.


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