THE leader of Scotland's 750,000 Roman Catholics, Cardinal Thomas Winning, has entered the independence debate with a warm defence of Scottish nationalism.

In a major speech to be delivered in Brussels tonight, the Cardinal will describe Scottish nationalism as ''mature, respectful of democracy and international in outlook'' and will quote polls suggesting Scotland could be independent within a decade.

Cardinal Winning will offer a view of Scottish nationalism which flies in the face of the hostility expressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair who at his party's Blackpool conference, condemned the SNP as ''separatists,'' and ''wreckers'' and ''chauvinists''.

He will be speaking on ''A New Scotland in the New Europe: hopes and challenges of a nation re-emerging within the European Union''. Cardinal Winning has been invited by the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community.

The talk is one in a series on issues of topical interest organised by the Brussels-based organisation.

The Cardinal will go out of his way to embrace the Europeanism of Scottish nationalists, also in direct contradiction of the Prime Minister's attack last week at Blackpool when he likened them to chauvinistic Tory Europhobes in the south of England.

He will talk of how he sees Scotland's future in Europe - without mentioning Britain.

In one passage of his speech, which was seen by The Herald last night, the Cardinal comes close to endorsing the SNP's flagship policy of independence in Europe.

Introducing himself to his European audience as ''from Scotland, Europe,'' he will talk of the ''sense of nationality and the sense of European-ness which is emerging in Scotland in these final days of the 20th century,'' adding: ''You see, the Europhobia which characterises much of the British press finds little echo in Scotland.''

The Cardinal will say: ''In Scotland in recent years, there has been a growing realisation that our future as a nation is European. Our culture, our laws, our language and literature, our trading links and our choice of holiday destination - all of these betray the very real, profound and unbreakable links which bind Scotland to the Old Continent.''

For centuries the Scots have not seen national boundaries and borders as any great constraint, the Cardinal will argue. ''But at the same time as we witness a growth in European sensitivity, Scotland is seeing a re-emergence of nationalism. To the outside observer such trends might seem contradictory. But I don't believe that to be the case.

''Nationhood within Europe seems to be the combination which is proving attractive for growing numbers of our fellow citizens.''

The Cardinal will dismiss the fears of those in Europe who might find the growth of Scottish nationalism worrying and he will offer a spirited defence of nationalist sympathies.

''The nationalism in question has nothing in common with the aggressive and violent nationalism which has scarred the Balkans, nor does it mirror the loud-mouthed rhetoric of the Lega del Nord in Italy or the xenophobic propaganda of the Front National in France.

''Democrats can be reassured that the emerging sense of nationhood and political nationalism in Scotland is unique in European terms. It is mature, respectful of democracy and international in outlook.''

Cardinal Winning will put this down to Scotland experiencing the ''rebirth of ancient nationhood in a cradle of modern democracy.'' He will argue: ''An old-yet-new nation is taking its place once more on the world stage with its legal system, democratic institutions, respect for human rights, educational facilities and all the rest already in place.''

The Cardinal will go on to say: ''Of course, the new Scottish Parliament will not be fully sovereign. Westminster will remain the ultimate authority.

''But recent polls show an increasing openness among Scots to the possibility of full independence - probably around 10 years from now. Certainly, young voters seem to back this option.''

The speech looks set to delight the SNP, dismay Labour, and depress unionists.

Anticipating there will be those seeing him as a cleric interfering in politics, the Cardinal will respond: ''As a Church living through this whirlwind of change we have been involved in doing what Vatican 11 told us to do: and that is reading the signs of the times and responding accordingly.'' He will suggest that in purely ecclesiastical law the Church is ''ahead of the game in terms of recognising Scotland's distinctiveness...''

He will recall how the Church refused to take sides in the Home Rule referendum because the issue was a question of free choice, based on pragmatism rather than dogma. He will explain how bishops said Catholics should be free to vote either way on devolution.

''Looking back I can say I was personally well pleased with that result. Devolution as an idea fits well with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity which is central to much of Catholic social teaching.''

He will say: ''As we prepare for a new start in Scotland, I see the devolution settlement with its potential for future independence as posing key questions rather than providing all the answers for both the Church and the European Union.''

Describing the new Scotland as an EU ''member state in all but name'' he will predict that defining Scotland's identity would become even more fraught should Scots decide to opt for full independence. ''It is not the Church's role to pontificate on whether that would be an appropriate step to take or not, but the opinion polls show it as a distinct possibility.

''Then Europe would be faced with, for the first time, a country coming to birth within a member state ... perhaps the (European) Commission needs to get its thinking cap on now to solve that one if it ever arises.''