Joseph (Joe) Kennedy, a grandson of the late US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and grand-nephew of the late US President John F Kennedy, has been confirmed in the role of new US Special Envoy to the north of Ireland.
Confirming the appointment today (Monday), US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that Mr Kennedy’s role will be focused on economic affairs, but that “in parallel” US diplomats in Europe and Washington would continue to engage with efforts to restore the Six County Executive and to resolve differences on the Irish Protocol of Brexit.
Mr Kennedy’s appointment is a result of the Biden administration’s expressed interest in the North and will raise expectations of a potential visit by the US president to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
The appointment was welcomed by the Irish and British governments and by northern politicians, including Sinn Féin First Minister-designate Michelle O’Neill, who said the US “remains a critical partner for peace”.
“They are an important stakeholder whose support for the Good Friday Agreement is deeply valued,” she said.
“This appointment puts renewed emphasis on the economic development of the north, and the benefits we can yield through dual access to both the EU single market and British market which uniquely positions our economy.
“Joe Kennedy has a strong record in promoting the interests of the north and I look forward to working with him in the time ahead. I believe he will bring very considerable expertise and experience to the task.
“As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April next year the opportunity must not be missed to restore power-sharing and North-South cooperation which I hope will see President Biden come to Ireland.
“My focus is on political cooperation with all other parties, and making politics work. At this time of a serious cost-of-living crisis when household and business budgets are badly squeezed we really need to help people, and confront the many challenges facing this society and economy.”
Joe Kennedy is a former District Attorney and a prominent political figure in Massachusetts after serving in the US House of Representatives for the state from 2013 to 2021.
Previous envoys include former Senator George Mitchell, who went on to play a key role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement. The last envoy was South Carolina politician Mick Mulvaney, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, but resigned following the riots in the Capitol building in Washington in January 2021. Other previous envoys include Richard Haass and Gary Hart.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the appointment of Mr Kennedy was a “clear sign” of Joe Biden’s “enduring commitment this place and its people”, while DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned that the envoy needed to “take account of unionist views and concerns about the economy”.
Welcoming the fact the US was “interested in developing economic links with Northern Ireland”, Donaldson also said it was “for Joe Kennedy to prove he will be even-handed in his approach”.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said unionism had “suffered from not engaging fully with the USA and this has been something my party has been keen to rebalance in recent years”.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said the appointment was a “clear demonstration” of Mr Biden’s “direct engagement with Ireland as well as the enduring US commitment to supporting peace in, and building the prosperity of, Northern Ireland”.
British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris said the London government “shares and welcomes the US Administration’s commitment to continuing to develop the potential and prosperity of Northern Ireland”. He said Mr Kennedy’s appointment “will create even more opportunities for taking forward this vital work”.
In his statement announcing the appointment, Mr Blinken said the special envoy would 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 US and the North.
US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin said the appointment demonstrates Mr Biden’s “continued, steadfast support” for the Good Friday Agreement, “which he views as an historic achievement that must be protected to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.
In a tweet confirming his appointment, Mr Kennedy said it was “an incredible honour”.
He said he looked forward to working with the Biden administration “to reaffirm US commitment to Northern Ireland and to promote economic prosperity and opportunity for all its people.”