By Conor Humphries
BELFAST (Reuters) - London's decision to grant Scotland a referendum on independence after 300 years has raised an awkward question for Northern Ireland's Catholics.
After centuries fighting for its downfall, do they really want the United Kingdom to collapse?
Irish nationalist leaders have seized on Scotland's 2014 vote as the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom and are calling for their own referendum on ending hundreds of years of rule from London.
But many Irish Catholics, the mainstay of the Republican cause for a united Ireland, appear reluctant to seize what their leaders say is a historic opportunity, fearful of upsetting a fragile peace and nervous of who will pay the bills.
"We are better off staying where we are from a rational and an emotional point of view," said Sean Kerr, a 61-year-old supporter of Sinn Fein, the main pro-Irish nationalist party.
"We went through 'The Troubles' and things have settled down, people are getting on together. Just leave us alone. Just let the hare sit, as they say up here."
He is not alone. Fifty-two percent of the province's Catholics think it should remain part of the United Kingdom, according the last major poll on the issue, released last year.
That number has been seized upon by unionist rivals in recent weeks as proof that a referendum would fail in Northern Ireland, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) saying that Catholic resistance meant Northern Ireland's place in the union was more secure that Scotland's.
Resistance to British rule has been at the core of Irish nationalism since Henry VIII of England declared himself King of Ireland in the 16th century.
After the Irish state secured independence from Britain in 1921, Northern Irish Catholics remained part of United Kingdom in a northern state dominated by Protestants, many of whose ancestors had settled from Scotland.
Catholics' protests that they were being treated as second-class citizens and the desire to rejoin the south helped fuel The Troubles, three decades of tit-for-tat bombings and shootings that killed 3,600 until a peace deal in 1998 introduced a power-sharing government.
While Catholics say most of their civil rights grievances have since been addressed, resistance to British rule, with the Irish tricolor its most potent symbol, remains a central part of their identity.
On the other side, thousands of Protestant "Loyalists" still demonstrate their attachment to Britain every year by marching, bowler-hatted, through Belfast and other towns in the province to celebrate a 300-year-old battlefield victory over Catholics.
A key concern for Irish Catholics, as they look south and see the economic devastation left in the wake of Ireland's Celtic Tiger crash, is the economics of splitting from Britain.
While activists in Scotland say direct control of the income from its offshore oil fields would more than make up for subsidies from London, almost everyone in Northern Ireland admits that it benefits financially from London.
The province secures around 10 billion pounds ($16 billion), or about half of total public sector spending, through an annual block grant from Britain. Just under one-third of the population is employed in the public sector, the highest level in the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein says combining public services for Ireland's 4.5 million people and Northern Ireland's 1.8 million would create cost savings, but its arguments have not convinced many.
To split with London in the current climate would be "totally insane" said Jim Wade, a Catholic businessman.
"If there was a vote in the morning, I would vote for a united Ireland. But at the same time I don't think we could afford it. I know down there, they couldn't afford it," he said of the Irish government.
Many northern Catholics looked on in envy as the Celtic Tiger transformed the Republic from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of its richest.
But since a property boom began to collapse in 2007 and Dublin signed up to an EU-IMF bailout three years later, unemployment has surged to a near-20 year high of just under 15 percent, compared to 8 percent in the north.
Even in staunchly Republican areas of Belfast, the economic reality of the decision remains a nagging worry.
"I have never come across anybody in these areas who wants to stay with Britain," said Margaret Shannon, 58, shopping on the predominantly Catholic Falls Road in Belfast.
"But it depends on the moment that they pick. When people look to the south and see them cutting funding again, taking bus passes from pensioners. That's what would unsettle people."
HARD SELL IN SOUTH
In the Republic of Ireland the dream of united Ireland remains a central tenet of Irish nationalism, the subject of countless ballads and an article of faith for political parties across the spectrum.
But economic reality is making unification a hard sell there, too.
A poll of Irish voters last week showed one in five said they expected it to happen within the next 25 years, with one-third saying it would never happen.
In a sign it would have little appetite for the vast cost of reunification, the Irish government announced last year that it could not afford one of the few cross-border initiatives it has signed up to, a 560 million euro cross-border motorway.
"The northern nationalist community is under no illusions that the south harbors any desire even in the medium to long term future to actually bring about a united Ireland," said Graham Walker, professor of political history at Belfast's Queen's University.
"That has been communicated to them very clearly."
UNION UP FOR DEBATE
Nationalists are selling the Scottish referendum as the beginning of a one-way street towards the United Kingdom's break up, saying that even if the Scottish vote is not passed London will be forced to give it more autonomy.
"What the Scottish referendum has shown is that the union is up for debate. The union is not set in stone or set there for generations to come," said John O'Dowd, a senior Sinn Fein minister in Northern Ireland's parliament.
The problem for Sinn Fein is that Irish nationalists may not yet be in a position to capitalize on it.
While not everyone in Northern Ireland votes along religious lines, most observers do not believe nationalists can secure approval for a united Ireland while Protestants, who traditionally vote for unionist parties, remain a majority of voters.
A census due later this month is expected to show further growth in the Catholic minority, although most observers say it will take another generation at least before Catholic voters are in a majority.
The 2001 census showed that 40 percent classified themselves as Catholic and 46 percent were Protestant. However just over half of the pupils in the 2010-11 academic year were Catholic compared to 37 percent who were Protestant.
The next census figures will "demonstrate very clearly the constitutional trajectory that we are set on," O'Dowd said.
Unionists, who say their link to Britain is a key part of their identity, are hoping that a strong vote against independence in Scotland could kill momentum for devolution before the Catholic community secures the majority.
"If they vote to stay in the union by a significant margin it will actually strengthen the union not weaken it," said Democratic Unionist party member Jeffrey Donaldson. " I think you will find that the outcome puts the issue to bed for many years to come."
(Editing by Padraic Halpin and Giles Elgood)