THE leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics last night backed independence from the UK, declaring he would be "happy" if Scots wanted separation.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, in remarks that will cause shockwaves north and south of the Border, said nations such as Ireland and Denmark benefited from the "prosperity which self-determination can bring".
The 68-year-old cleric also voiced his frustration with the Scottish Parliament and predicted independence is coming "before too long".
O'Brien's comments have caused deep dismay in Labour ranks, with party sources expressing disappointment the Cardinal has chosen to stray on to such controversial political ground months before the Holyrood elections.
But there was predictable delight among the SNP, who closed their party conference yesterday in buoyant mood, convinced they can persuade Scots of the benefits of full independence at the ballot box next May.
O'Brien's remarks appear in an interview with the Catholic Herald newspaper and St Andrews University philosopher John Haldane.
Asked if the Church could be indifferent to a move towards independence in Scotland, he declared: "I would not get too involved in the politics of independence, but I am happy that, if it is the wish of the people, Scotland becomes an independent country."
He added: "In my travels I have had much experience of small countries and I have seen what benefits independence can bring.
"There is currently some frustration among the Scots about the say they have over what happens here, and that is part of what is pushing the independence movement. I can see this coming, perhaps not in the next few years, but before too long."
O'Brien concedes that, as the leader of a Scottish church which is itself independent from England, "it is difficult to argue that ecclesiastical independence is acceptable but political independence is not".
Asked by Scotland on Sunday to expand on his views, O'Brien talked up the advantages other small countries have experienced since getting independence.
He said: "Ireland would be an example of a country which has prospered since achieving independence. Additionally, other northern European countries such as Norway and Denmark exemplify the prosperity which self-determination can bring."
O'Brien also acknowledged the growth of nationalism across the nations of the UK. "I am aware of a growing sense of nationhood and national identity in England, exhibited recently during the World Cup campaign and reflected in the increasing appearance of the St George Cross at such sporting fixtures and other gatherings. In this context, Scottish national identity has always been strong. Ultimately multinational identities are harder to express than national ones."
He also picked out the current debate over the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent. O'Brien recently joined the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in condemning plans to replace the UK's Trident system as "iniquitous, irrational and absurd".
He said: "The recent debate on Trident is instructive. The groundswell of feeling in Scotland against the Trident missile system has highlighted a deep sense of frustration among many Scots. We have no wish to pay for or host these evil weapons, yet we have no power to remove them."
The Cardinal's comments follow a series of sharp attacks on Labour's policies on moral issues, despite historically strong links between Catholics in Scotland and the Labour Party. Last week, Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic Bishop of Paisley, criticised politicians for making laws such as those allowing gay civil marriages, and accused legislators of becoming intolerant and even hostile to Christian opinion.
SNP leader Alex Salmond said last night: "Scotland's Cardinal is a man of vision and stature. Obviously he avoids party politics, but I am delighted that he has issued such favourable signals about independence and self-determination for the nation."
But leading composer James MacMillan, a practising Catholic, said he disagreed. "I believe in the Union. I believe that my views are much closer to the views of most Catholics in Scotland."
And a Labour insider said of O'Brien's intervention: "It's not helpful, but the only consolation is that it's a long time since Catholic voters did exactly what they were told by their Church."
Officially the party's response was more muted. A spokesman said: "Cardinal O'Brien is entitled to his views, and the Catholic church has a long history of taking a position on Trident."