Special Envoy Kennedy Faces Crucial Year in Northern Ireland

By Brian Dooley

Appointing former Congressman Joe Kennedy III as the new United States Special Envoy to Northern Ireland is a serious move by the Biden administration.

This is a politically-charged appointment at a particularly fraught time for Northern Ireland as it deals with the fallout from Brexit and the aftermath of the 1969-1998 conflict.

Next year is the 25th anniversary since the Good Friday Agreement that ended the large-scale violence in Northern Ireland, and President Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, George Mitchell, was a key player in making the agreement happen.

Joe Kennedy is unlikely to play such a pivotal role in Irish history, though he could make a significant mark in the coming crucial year, as plans are under way for President Joe Biden to visit Belfast in April.

No one is fooled by Kennedy’s full title of Special Envoy for Economic Affairs.  Many hope and expect Kennedy to expand his remit beyond economics to an agenda of justice and accountability for what happened during the Troubles.

There’s never just one elephant in the room in Northern Ireland, and one of the biggest right now is the British government’s much-criticized legislation that would put an end to prosecutions of those responsible for killings and torture while offering immunity to perpetrators. It is expected to pass in 2023, and Human Rights First is part of a panel of international experts investigating the extent of impunity for human rights violations during the Northern Ireland conflict.

It’s hard to see how Kennedy won’t be dragged into these legacy issues, not least because Northern Ireland’s future economic stability depends on satisfactory ways of processing the past. In fact, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the appointment this week, he noted that the role “builds on the long-standing U.S. commitment to supporting peace, prosperity, and stability in Northern Ireland and the peace dividends of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

Kennedy’s appointment was greeted with some enthusiasm by local human rights activists. Daniel Holder of the Committee on the Administration of Justice said, “There has long been international involvement in the peace process which is not just an internal matter for the UK. Increased interest from the U.S. administration can assist in ensuring the UK abides by international obligations relating to the peace settlement.”

Kennedy is a heavyweight appointment, and he carries some hefty political baggage into the job. Although his grandfather Bobby Kennedy was assassinated a year before the Troubles started in 1969, his great-uncle Ted Kennedy was a senator during the conflict, and famously described the 1972 killings of 13 civil rights protestors on Bloody Sunday in Derry by British soldiers as “Britain’s My Lai.”

I saw up close Senator Ted Kennedy’s commitment to ending the conflict in Northern Ireland when I was working for him in the mid-1980s. In 1985, Ted Kennedy was integral to American support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement that provided for an advisory role for the government of the Republic of Ireland in the government of Northern Ireland. It was one of the many steps that paved the way to the Good Friday Agreement.

As U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Joseph Kennedy’s great-aunt Jean also played a key role during the peace process. And many in Ireland fondly remember a 1988 altercation when a British soldier in Belfast told Congressman Joseph Kennedy II — the new special envoy’s father — to go back to his own country, and Kennedy retorted “Why don’t you go back to yours?”

The new special envoy has a long involvement in these issues.  In 2020, while a Congressman from Massachusetts, he joined 23 other members of Congress urging the then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to properly address one of the most notorious killings of the conflict, the 1989 murder of attorney Pat Finucane. The British government had promised — but has yet to carry out — a full independent inquiry into the murder. “[W]e remain astounded that the British government has refused to live up to its responsibility, and is violating its commitments to establish the inquiry,” said Kennedy and the other members.

The Finucane family is just one of many in Northern Ireland that has been denied justice and accountability following the deaths of loved ones. Natasha Butler’s grandfather Paddy was killed by British soldiers in 1972 with four others one night in Belfast at the Springhill/Westrock massacre.

Her family has been campaigning for many years for the truth of what happened that night to be revealed, and she welcomes Kennedy’s appointment as special envoy. “We are pleased that the U.S. is taking notice of many key issues, and of the distress currently faced by legacy families here in the North,” she said. “We hope Joe Kennedy’s first order of business is to address the shameful legacy legislation being railroaded throughWestminster [the British parliament], and call for the bill to be scrapped. It is not victim-centered, and only seeks to cause lasting pain and trauma which will continue for many generations to come if allowed to pass into law.”

Expectations on Kennedy are high, but he has a real opportunity to show that the Biden administration is serious about keeping Britain to its promises of 25 years ago.





  • Brian Dooley

Published on December 21, 2022


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