DOWNING Street last night brushed aside a call from the SNP for Tony Blair, the prime minister, to make an official apology to Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, over the Carfin grotto fiasco.

Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's official spokesman, said: ''I have never commented on opposition parties, whether serious or not.

''However, I think the prime minister's relationship with the taoiseach is such as they can carry on with a positive relationship without the help of the SNP.''

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Earlier at a Westminster press conference, Alex Salmond, the former Scottish nationalist leader, made the call for Mr Blair to apologise for the diplomatic row, which led to the cancellation of the taoiseach's planned visit to the Catholic grotto and the resignation of Frank Roy, the MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, as the parliamentary aide to Helen Liddell, the Scottish secretary.

''The issue should be brought to closure with an apology to the taoiseach,'' said Mr Salmond, the MP/MSP for Banff and Buchan. ''That would be the honourable way to close the issue in terms of Scotland's reputation and our relationship with Bertie Ahern.''

He added: ''Since we know that at least a PPS (Mr Roy) was involved and we suspect the involvement of two cabinet ministers (Ms Liddell and John Reid, the Northern Ireland secretary) in Mr Blair's government, the right thing would be for the prime minister to issue an apology and bring the issue to a close.''

Mr Salmond also claimed that the ministerial conspiracy involved Jack McConnell, the Scottish executive's external affairs minister. He said there was ''no doubt'' Mr McConnell, who shared an office with Mr Roy, was party to ''this national embarrassment''.

Meanwhile, Johann Lamont, Glasgow Pollok Labour MSP, has called on her fellow politicians to consider the possibility of passing laws to make religious discrimination a crime.

She has tabled a parliamentary motion which calls on the Scottish Executive and Parliament to support the work of groups tackling bigotry in Scotland.

Lib Dem Central Scotland MSP Donald Gorrie has also tabled a motion calling for a commission to be set up to examine what steps the Executive and Parliament should take to reduce bigotry.

Ms Lamont said the motion was in part submitted to ''strike a balance'' in the debate that surrounded the controversy over Mr Ahern's cancelled visit to Carfin.