The Biden administration has appointed former Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy III as a special representative to Northern Ireland for economic affairs, as the White House continues to pressure the UK and EU to settle their dispute over the region’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
US president Joe Biden, who has Irish family ties, has followed the tense stand-off between London and Brussels over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol closely, including discussing the matter in his first meeting with Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, last month.
The White House has pressed both parties to find a negotiated settlement that does not undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which then US president Bill Clinton helped to broker, bringing an end to three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles.
British officials are hoping to reach a deal with the EU ahead of the 25th anniversary of the 1998 peace accord in April next year, although Sunak cautioned against an “imminent breakthrough”.
But US officials on Monday played down Kennedy’s involvement and said he would concentrate on drumming up trade and investment and would not play a diplomatic role. Kennedy’s appointment comes before a new law that requires special envoys named after January 3 2023 to be confirmed by the US Senate.
“He will focus on advancing economic development and investment opportunities in Northern Ireland to the benefit of all communities as well as strengthening people-to-people ties between the United States and Northern Ireland,” Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said Monday.
The role has been empty since 2021 after former Trump White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney resigned in the wake of the attack on the US Capitol.
Kennedy, 42, is a member of the renowned Kennedy family. His grandfather was former Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of John F Kennedy, the first US president with Irish Catholic roots.
Some rightwing Conservative MPs in Sunak’s governing party are sceptical about US influence, particularly if Kennedy’s appointment is seen as putting more pressure on the pro-UK, predominantly Protestant unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“Giving anybody from the US called Kennedy any influence over this seems a bad idea,” said one pro-Brexit Tory MP. However, senior officials in the British government have also been told privately by Washington that Kennedy would not be involved in the Northern Ireland protocol issue.
On a visit to Belfast last week, Sunak said he was working “flat out” to resolve protocol issues and to restore the power-sharing executive at Stormont. The pro-UK Democratic Unionist party has vetoed the formation of the executive since the region’s May elections, which were won by Sinn Féin, the pro-Irish unity party.
“It is for Joe Kennedy to prove that he will be even-handed in his approach,” said DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. “He needs to take account of unionists’ views and concerns.”
UK diplomats hope Biden will come to Britain for a state visit next year and will want to resolve the Northern Ireland dispute before his arrival. There are also hopes that the president will visit Belfast.
EU diplomats said the US was also applying pressure in Brussels for a compromise deal on the protocol issue. Clinton was the first US president to appoint a special envoy for Northern Ireland in 1995.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, said in a statement: “I look forward to working together to accelerate the already strong US partnership with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, including in the crucial areas of trade and investment.”
Stephen Kelly, head of trade group Manufacturing NI, welcomed Kennedy’s appointment. “In the absence of an executive, we need friends in the US . . . promoting the economic opportunity that exists in Northern Ireland,” he said. “Where there is prosperity, we have peace.”
But one former US special envoy was less optimistic. “I don’t know how you encourage people to invest in Northern Ireland unless and until you have a few things solved — the restoration of the assembly, the protocol and the paramilitaries.” Loyalist groups have warned of the potential for paramilitary violence unless the protocol is changed.