There is a curious insistence that Northern Ireland’s next US special envoy will focus entirely on economic development and have nothing to do with “politics”, related either to Brexit or the restoration of Stormont.
This line has been reported from government sources in Washington, Dublin and London over the past month. It has been relayed with further determination since last week, when the envoy was identified as former congressman Joe Kennedy III.
Yet the same sources have been briefing that Brexit and Stormont politics are what makes appointing a special envoy urgent and essential.
Leading Irish-Americans have been saying this openly since last year. Earlier this month, British government sources told Bloomberg that London welcomes an envoy because the US may encourage Brussels to make changes to the protocol.
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Economics and politics are not opposites, of course. They can operate “in parallel”, as US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Monday, while announcing Kennedy’s appointment. But these are parallel tracks that do often meet. Kennedy cannot be a significant figure in one without crossing into the other.
When the special envoy role was established in 1995 it was given an economic development remit, partly to reassure John Major’s British government, which had been opposed to the post’s creation. Major and taoiseach John Bruton immediately asked the first incumbent, senator George Mitchell, to chair talks on paramilitary decommissioning. The envoy’s position has been seen as political in Northern Ireland ever since, but this is uncontentious and often lauded. Senator Mitchell went on to chair the Belfast Agreement talks; his successors, Richard Haass then Mitchell Reiss, found their roles to be mainly applying pressure on Sinn Féin over the IRA, culminating in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.
The next four envoys did confine themselves to economic development, which is perhaps why they are not remembered. Even former senator Gary Hart, a big political name, made no impression.
When Stormont required all-party talks in 2013, Haass was one of two US diplomats brought in as chairs. His “political” envoy experience was seen as an asset by all sides.
So who is the depoliticisation of Kennedy meant to mollify?
Unionist concerns have presumably been considered. There might be little patience with this in Washington but there is no point having an envoy one community does not accept.
Kennedy’s father, Joe Kennedy II, was a well-known nuisance in the final decade of the Troubles. He led lobbying efforts in the early 1990s to create the special envoy post, causing some of the suspicions around it.
The assumed goal for the special envoy is promoting the protocol’s unique advantages and securing landmark US investments
The peace process has diluted all this water under the bridge. Kennedy II supported the Belfast Agreement and left Congress in 1999. Unionism’s long-standing hostility to Irish-America ebbed away remarkably quickly.
Kennedy III is not his father’s keeper, or even his protege – it is a relationship complicated by divorce. He may support a united Ireland, but most Irish-Americans do, as unionists are aware.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, was grandstanding on Monday when he said it is “for Joe Kennedy to prove he will be even-handed in his approach”.
Everyone would be enormously surprised if he were anything less.
The general reaction across unionism has been curiosity at what such a high-profile envoy might achieve for Northern Ireland, economically and politically.
Donaldson effectively called on Kennedy to become involved in protocol politics, observing it is inseparable from economic development.
Sinn Féin will certainly not object to any involvement from Kennedy. In July, vice-president Michelle O’Neill suggested a US envoy could be an “honest broker” in the Stormont deadlock.
EU concern about US involvement is an overlooked possibility.
Any new understanding between London and Dublin, even if brokered by Washington, might still have the effect of a British divide-and-conquer strategy. Clearly, Britain hopes so.
More intriguing could be EU unease about economic development in Northern Ireland.
The assumed goal for the special envoy is promoting the protocol’s unique advantages and securing landmark US investments.
If Kennedy found a way to make the protocol work the way the EU claims to want it to work, the EU might be horrified
“There’s a tremendous opportunity for Northern Ireland here,” William Keating, a congressman who pushed for the envoy’s appointment, explained last week.
The protocol only grants EU single market access for goods. That plus full UK market access constitutes its unique offer, minus all its bureaucratic and sea border complexities. The most obvious ways to capitalise on this are manufacturing and exploiting regulatory divergence.
Brussels is prepared to tolerate indigenous firms in Northern Ireland selling into its market, provided they are subject to its laws and state aid rules, but a quasi-offshore US enterprise park is another matter. Even London might baulk at the potential impact on Britain.
If Kennedy found a way to make the protocol work the way the EU claims to want it to work, the EU might be horrified.
That is one more reason to wish him every success.