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Northern envoy appointment offers Kennedy a political lifeline

The grandson of the late Robert F Kennedy will know that his performance in the North will greatly influence his political future

Joe Kennedy III may be a surprise choice to many commentators as special envoy to Northern Ireland, but not to those close to president Joe Biden. This is about American politics too, giving a lifeline to a Kennedy, the political family Biden admires more than any other.

The appointment comes with one major advantage: Kennedy will be able to reach the president directly, a vital plus enjoyed by no other US special envoy to the North, save for Senator George Mitchell.

Kennedy (42) served eight years in the US House of Representatives, from 2012 to 2020, and became a major political figure. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certainly agreed, and gave him the plum job of responding to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018. The Stanford University/Harvard Law grad aced it.

“We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country. We hear the voices of Americans who feel forgotten and forsaken,” Kennedy told a nationwide audience.


People began to dream of the next Camelot. At six foot with a shock of red hair, Kennedy had the looks and the game to go far, and he wore the family mantle lightly.

But then came a major political miscalculation. In 2020 Kennedy decided, against more sage advice, to run for the US Senate seat held by Boston political fixture Ed Markey. His staff was so confident that some urged Markey to step aside or be steamrolled. What could go wrong?

But Markey, backed by progressives such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, managed to get to the left of Kennedy in their primary fight. Kennedy was widely criticized for not waiting his turn as the 74-year-old Markey trounced him in the Democratic primary, sending Kennedy into political oblivion.

Now, with this high level Irish envoy position, he is back. The appointment received major prominence in The Washington Post and Boston Globe among other media outlets.

Kennedy has been biding his time to emerge from the embers of his Senate campaign disaster. Now the moment has arrived.

Ironically, it will happen 3,000 miles away from the US as Kennedy will seek to impact the troubled Irish peace process which appears in perpetual crisis.

What kind of envoy will he be? He has none of the arrogance of his father, former Congressman Joe Kennedy, and is personable and thoughtful in meetings.

The role is defined as economic envoy, but that was also the title given to Senator George Mitchell, who became the ultimate political operative when he took the job back in 1995 with remarkable success, culminating in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement three years later.

Doubtless Kennedy will be making the trek to Florida, where Mitchell has now retired, to absorb the lessons that Mitchell learned so well.

He will have learned from his mistakes, and knows that how he performs in Ireland will greatly influence his political future. Independently wealthy (his net worth is as much as $43 million, according to various watchdog groups), he can afford the time to build his comeback off a successful period of peacemaking in Ireland.

The grandson of the late Robert F Kennedy seems up to the task. Importantly, he has stood apart from the grandchild generation of Kennedys. Many of the younger clan blazed a trail that ended up in tabloid headlines and, worse, deep personal tragedies that gave rise to a Kennedy curse mantra in the media.

Kennedy III never attracted such scrutiny thanks to his mother, a former expert city planner named Sheila Rauch, who divorced Joe’s father and ensured that her son and his twin brother would stay clear of the Kennedy follies.

But despite keeping her distance, Rauch decided to go public on a disgraceful episode where her ex-husband had sought an annulment from the Catholic Church to marry a new wife.

She described her shock as she received that first letter from the Boston Archdiocese in which it was stated that officials were planning to “investigate” her marriage, with a view to proving it had never existed.

She told the London Independent: “How could anyone make such a statement about a courtship that had lasted nine years, and a 12-year marriage that had produced two children?”

It took her years to fight off the inquisitors, eventually receiving their verdict, written in Latin in 2005, that her marriage to Kennedy II was real. The annulment move ruined Kennedy II’s political career, but his son picked up the mantle.

Kennedy III has a powerful advocate in the White House and President Biden. The connection is real. Look no further than the Oval Office where a bust of Robert Kennedy is often seen perched over the president’s left shoulder.

Robert F Kennedy is Biden’s hero, and giving his grandson an opportunity to kickstart his stalled political career was an easy decision by a man who has embraced the mythology of the Camelot dynasty.

Further proof of that is Biden’s naming of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F Kennedy, as US ambassador to Australia. Clearly, Biden likes some of the Kennedy stardust sprinkled on his presidency.

It is a very real affection. When Biden’s first wife Neilia and daughter Naomi were killed in a tragic road crash in December 1972, not long after he was elected to the Senate from Delaware, it was Senator Ted Kennedy who talked him out of quitting and who took care of his political duties until Biden was able to resume.

John F Kennedy’s victory in 1960 as the first Catholic president opened the floodgates for Catholics everywhere to dream of national office. And Biden was all in on the Kennedy fervour.

During his first campaign for the Senate, Biden’s sister Valerie imitated the JFK coffee mornings, where the handsome politician met star-struck housewives and young women. The Bidens even went so far as to rearrange their Delaware property in a Hyannis Port compound format.

What philosophy will Joe III bring to his new job? “Democracy isn’t an achievement. It is a constant exercise that you have to continuously work on and nourish,” he told the Wexford Kennedy School via Zoom last summer.

He was talking about both America and Northern Ireland. He has a powerful motivation to help restore the institutions in the North, 3,000 miles away from his Boston base. His performance could determine whether he has a political future in the U.S. as well.

The plan is surely to be able to proclaim success when Biden visits Belfast in April. That would make for a great springboard for Kennedy to get back into the game.

Niall O’Dowd is the founder of, the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine, which are based in New York