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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Northern Ireland should remain in the European Union's single market and retain access to as many EU programmes as possible to ensure the British province secures a soft Brexit, the favourite to succeed Enda Kenny as Irish Prime Minister said on Monday.
Northern Ireland, which will represent the only land border between Britain and the EU once Britain leaves the bloc, voted 56 to 44 percent to remain in the EU in last year's referendum but the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.
British Prime Minister Theresa May advocates making a clean break from the single market of 500 million consumers - a so-called "hard Brexit" that would impact Northern Irish businesses which trade seamlessly across the currently invisible border.
Leo Varadkar, who has built up a near insurmountable lead in the contest to succeed Kenny, according to the support declared so far by his Fine Gael party's lawmakers, said he will advocate special arrangements on behalf of Northern Ireland if elected prime minister.
"The Irish government has a crucial role to play in advocating for what the people in Northern Ireland voted for which was to remain (in the EU) and while that is not possible, they can have a soft Brexit by staying in as many programmes as possible," Varadkar told a news conference.
Other programmes Varadkar would argue for retained access to include Interreg, which provides funding for border areas, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Erasmus EU exchange programme that lets students attend universities across the bloc.
He said he was advancing current government policy to seek such special arrangements and this was distinct from opposition calls, including by Northern Ireland's largest nationalist party Sinn Fein, for a granting of "special status" within the EU, which he said was not doable.
Varadkar, who has secured the publicly declared backing of almost two-thirds of the party's lawmakers ahead of the June 2 leadership vote, said the island of Ireland needed to prepare for the possibility that a United Ireland or shared sovereignty will occur "in our lifetime".
The British government can order a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. Varadkar said he opposed such a poll at this time and indicated that he would favour a vote that required more than a simple majority to pass.
"Any change to the constitution status of Northern Ireland shouldn't happen just because there is one more nationalist than unionist, it should only happen when there is a consensus," he said.
"Crucially, that consent shouldn't a be a simple majoritarian consensus, it has to be one that commands broader support from both communities in Northern Ireland."
Editing by Ed Osmond