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Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni attends a press conference after a foreign minister meeting of the EU founding members in Berlin, Germany, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt - RTX2I4E7

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By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Erecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic over Britain's vote to leave the European Union would be a dangerous development that Europe should avoid, Italy's foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Northern Ireland, a British province, will represent the only land frontier between Britain and the EU once Britain leaves, and Ireland is seeking support to ensure that freedom of movement and goods across the island is preserved.

The frontier was marked by military checkpoints until a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of violence between Catholic nationalists seeking a united Ireland and Protestant unionists who wanted to keep Northern Ireland British. Over 3,600 died.

"We do hope and we are confident that the British referendum will not have as a consequence the raising of new borders in Ireland between Ireland and Northern Ireland," Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after a meeting with his Irish counterpart.

"This would be a really very, very negative and dangerous consequence of the referendum. It is a concern for all of Europe to avoid negative consequences in this particular area," Gentiloni told a news conference in Dublin.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny raised similar concerns with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday. Merkel said that Ireland's voice would be heard but she could not pre-judge the result of Britain's EU withdrawal talks.

A majority in Northern Ireland, like in neighbouring Scotland but unlike in more populous England, voted for Britain to stay in the EU. Many now believe the biggest threat to Irish peace would be the reimposition of border checks disrupting a myriad of beneficial trade and financial ties between the North and the Republic related to the EU single market.

Nationalist politicians have already said the prospect of a harder border would justify a referendum on a united Ireland.

Theresa May, who will replace David Cameron as British prime minister on Wednesday, said on June 30 that details of future Irish border arrangements would hinge on the outcome of Brexit talks with Brussels. But she noted that there had been a common travel area with the Irish Republic since the 1920s.

"We are working with the Irish government to bring some improvements into how we arrange that between us (in future). We will be continuing to work with them to ensure that we can do that and bring that about,” May said.

In Dublin, Gentiloni also said that while it was up to Britain when to start talks with Brussels on the terms of Brexit, he hoped there would not be a long period of uncertainty that could be very negative for Europe.

"We are asking for an orderly phasing of this process, we cannot leave any room for domino effects or ideas of Europe a la carte, ideas of each single country imagining to have the European Union tailor-made for their own interests," he said.

(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel in Berlin and Kylie MacLellan in London; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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