Northern Ireland's first minister tells Scots "don't go"

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's first minister said on Monday he would summon "every fibre of his being" to urge Scottish voters not to leave the United Kingdom as fellow Unionists fretted about next week's referendum.

Peter Robinson, whose Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) shares power with nationalist Sinn Fein in the British-controlled province's devolved government, said it would be a tragedy to lose a "family member" Northern Ireland has so much in common with.

An opinion poll on Saturday showed for the first time this year that Scots may vote for independence next week in a poll that could herald the break up of the UK, prompting concern bordering on panic among Britain's ruling elite.

"I respect the fact that it's their choice, but summon every fibre of my being to say don't go! Stay and continue to shape our nation," Robinson wrote in an opinion piece in Northern Ireland's Newsletter newspaper.

"This is not a choice between rule from London or going it alone. The best way to preserve and promote the Union is through devolution," he said. "Devolving power into the hands of locally accountable political institutions helps to solidify the Union, not dilute it."

A Scottish exit would be a huge psychological blow to Northern Ireland's loyalists, who express their allegiance to London by lining their streets with Britain's Union Jack flags, some even painting kerbstones in its red, white and blue.

It would force England and Northern Ireland to reassess their constitutional relationship, whose divisive details helped to fuel 30 years of bloodshed between Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans who wanted to unite with the Irish Republic to the south.

Many Northern Irish Protestants trace their roots to Scotland via a migration in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The main Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland have maintained a studied silence during the campaign, insisting the vote is a matter for the Scots. Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in the province, has said that Northern Ireland should hold a referendum as early as 2016 on whether to remain British or join a united Ireland.

Ireland's government, co-guarantor of Northern Ireland's peace with London, has also been quiet, except for a line in its National Risk Assessment report that the Scottish vote could introduce an "element of instability" in Northern Ireland.

A briefing note produced by the foreign ministry in Dublin warned government ministers to "be careful to avoid expressing views prematurely," the Irish Times reported in July.

Some have warned that a revival of hopes of a united Ireland could boost support for nationalist militants - largely silent since a 1998 peace deal - and raising the spectre of retaliation from pro-British militants.

Northern Ireland's worst rioting in years was sparked two years ago by a decision to limit the number of days the British flag flies in Belfast after the growing nationalist community secured its first majority on the town's city council.

One of the leaders of the flag protests, Jamie Bryson, said on Twitter that Northern Irish Protestants "could well be facing a doomsday scenario" if Scotland voted to leave.

"The unionist parties in Ulster have taken a 'no' vote for granted and they will now be making contingency plans for dealing with an independent Scotland," said James McKerrow is a former Ulster Unionist Party mayor of North Down. "But the middle classes in Ulster are little concerned and will be little affected by the vote. The real challenge is for grass roots loyalism in the working class housing estates."