Irish PM says we must not return to hard border with Northern Ireland

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny addresses the media during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) - Negotiations on Britain's departure from the European Union must not undermine peace in Northern Ireland and there can be no "hard border" between the British province and the Irish Republic, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said on Thursday.

"Whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, nothing should undermine the peace and stability ... in Northern Ireland, which has taken so long to achieve and in which the European Union has played such an important part," Kenny said in Berlin.

"As demonstrated by recent developments, the peace and stability there remains in a fragile state," he added before meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It is therefore critical that there is no return to a hard border," he said.

A political crisis has gripped Northern Ireland since Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein in January pulled out of devolved government, the cornerstone of peace in the province for almost two decades.

No one is predicting the political impasse might pitch Northern Ireland back into the violence between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists that killed 3,600 people in three decades before the 1998 peace deal.

But the impasse may increase sectarian tensions and freeze decision-making as Britain prepares to leave the EU, creating a land border with the EU in Ireland. The last time devolved government collapsed, it took five years to reinstate it.

"This is also about issues of peace and security," Merkel said of Brexit, with a nod to Northern Ireland, and promised "with all due care to help our member state Ireland".

The chancellor said the remaining 27 EU states would take a constructive approach to the Brexit talks and protect their interests, "but we also want to remain good partners"."

(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Noah Barkin/Jeremy Gaunt)