The appointment of Joe Kennedy III as the US special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs has been confirmed by US secretary of state Antony Blinken.
Mr Kennedy’s role is focused on economic affairs and it is understood that he will not become involved in the current political crisis at Stormont.
However, Mr Blinken said “in parallel, US diplomats in Europe and Washington will continue to engage with political leaders on efforts to restore the Northern Ireland Executive and to resolve differences on the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
Northern Ireland has been without a power-sharing government since the May elections, when the DUP refused to re-enter the Assembly or the Executive until issues around the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – are resolved to its satisfaction.
Mr Kennedy’s appointment will be seen as evidence of the Biden administration’s interest in the North and will raise hopes of a potential visit by the US president to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement in April.
In a social media post, Mr Kennedy said it was an “incredible honor” to be appointed special envoy and 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”.
The appointment was welcomed by the Irish and British governments and by Northern Irish politicians, including first minister designate Michelle O’Neill, who said it “puts renewed focus on economic development and prosperity”.
She said Mr Kennedy “has a strong record in promoting the interests of the North” and that with the Belfast Agreement’s 25th anniversary approaching, “the opportunity must not be missed to restore power-sharing and North-South co-operation which I hope will see President Biden come to Ireland”.
However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warned that the envoy needed to “take account of unionist views and concerns about the economy”.
While he welcomed the fact the US was “interested in developing economic links with Northern Ireland”, he said it was “for Joe Kennedy to prove he will be even-handed in his approach”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mr Kennedy’s appointment was “very welcome” and that he had “no doubt that he will make an important contribution”.
“This appointment is a reminder of the United States’s steadfast support for the peace and reconciliation process since the [Belfast] Agreement.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said the appointment was a “clear demonstration” 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”.
Northern secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the UK 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 the 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.
A member of one of the most famous Irish-American political dynasties, Mr Kennedy is the grandson of the former US senator and attorney general Robert Kennedy – the brother of president John F Kennedy - who was assassinated in 1963.
The 42-year-old was a Massachusetts congressman but chose not to contest his seat in the 2020 election. He instead sought the Democratic nomination for the senate elections but lost the primary and subsequently stepped back from politics.
The post of special envoy to Northern Ireland has been vacant since the last US special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney – who was appointed by former president Donald Trump – resigned following the riots in the Capitol building in Washington in January of last year.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the appointment was a “clear sign” of Mr Biden’s “enduring commitment this place and its people”.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said she hoped Mr Kennedy’s appointment would “put international focus on the impasse here and increase the chances of the institutions being restored” well ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.
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”.
US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin said the appointment demonstrates Mr Biden’s “continued, steadfast support” for the Belfast Agreement, “which he views as an historic achievement that must be protected to ensure peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.