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FILE PHOTO - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny leaves the European Council after a meeting with EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels, Belgium, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

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By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders at a Brexit summit on Saturday should give a formal undertaking to embrace the British province of Northern Ireland in the EU if a referendum unites the island, diplomats said on Friday.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has previously asked fellow members of the bloc to acknowledge that Northern Ireland would, like East Germany in 1990, automatically enter the EU in the event of unification with existing member state, the Irish Republic.

Kenny will ask the other 26 leaders meeting in Brussels to endorse a negotiating plan for Britain's withdrawal to give a political endorsement to what Irish and EU legal experts say is the position in international law of such territorial changes.

"It would merely state the obvious, i.e. that also a united Ireland would continue being a member of the EU," a source close to preparations for the European Council said.

"The EU does of course not take a stance on the possibility of a united Ireland. Should this question arise, it would be for the peoples of Ireland and Northern Ireland to decide in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement."

Northern Ireland's future is part of broader uncertainty for territories of what was once the world's biggest empire.

Britain's right-wing press fulminated last month against EU plans to spell out that Spain, which claims sovereignty over Gibraltar, should have a veto over applying any future EU-UK free trade deal to the tiny British enclave.

However, Britain's Brexit minister David Davis acknowledged last month that Northern Ireland, if it united with the Republic, would be entitled to be absorbed into the EU rather than have to seek to join the bloc as a new independent state.

UNIFICATION NOT IMMINENT

Calls for a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom have picked up since Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU, while the United Kingdom's two other countries, England and Wales, chose to leave in last year's Brexit vote.

Elections in March that denied pro-British unionists a majority in the province for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921 have further emboldened Irish nationalists, most notably their main political representatives Sinn Fein.

But Kenny has consistently said that now is not the right time for a vote and demographics suggest it could take a generation before Catholics, who tend to back Irish nationalist parties, become a majority among Northern Ireland's population.

"An Ireland united under the Good Friday Agreement would be part of the European Union... Irish unity is not part of the Brexit negotiations but given the importance of the Good Friday Agreement it will be suitable for that to be acknowledged by the European Council," a senior Irish official in Brussels said.

"This is not about starting a process but it is important that there be clear acknowledgment that this is the case."

The leaders, meeting without British Prime Minister Theresa May, would enter their agreement with Kenny's position in the formal minutes of the Council. These are normally published only after a subsequent meeting, though they are likely in this case to be made public immediately by those taking part.

The 1998 peace accord, backed by the British and Irish states, says referendums should be held on both sides of the border to approve unification of the island.

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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