President Joe Biden will soon name a special envoy for Northern Ireland as the US seeks a bigger role in a region beset by the post-Brexit impasse between the UK and the European Union, people familiar with the administration’s plans said.
The job has been vacant since Mick Mulvaney left the position at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2021. A decision on a replacement is close, the people said on condition of anonymity. They declined to say who it would be.
The timing suggests the US is looking for a more active role in Northern Ireland as it prepares to mark a quarter century since the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended violence between republicans and unionists. One person said the US has told the UK and EU it is keen to help broker a deal. But two people said the envoy’s focus will be on economic development and not Brexit.
Another deadline is also looming: under a US law signed a year ago, most special envoys named after Jan. 3, 2023 will require Senate approval, a process that can take months or even years.
The dispute over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol — the part of the Brexit deal which keeps the region in the EU’s single market to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland — has long hampered relations between London and Brussels, even though both sides agreed to a trade deal in December 2020.
Critically, it has also left Northern Ireland without a functioning government because the Democratic Unionist Party has refused to take its place in the region’s power-sharing administration in protest over the protocol.
That has raised political tensions, and the Biden administration has repeatedly told the UK it must protect Northern Ireland’s peace process. The US is seeking a resolution ahead of the Good Friday Agreement anniversary in April. It’s possible Biden could pay a state visit to the region at that time, a person familiar with the matter said.
Keeping the Peace
A US official who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations said Biden would name an envoy in the coming weeks to focus on economic engagement in Northern Ireland. Another person familiar with the matter said US diplomats across the region will look to address differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The economic issues are critical — there’s a tremendous opportunity for Northern Ireland here,” Representative William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat who has pushed for the envoy to be appointed, said in an interview. “It’s also important because there’s unfortunately an uptick of violence. We’re heading into the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement and some of those aren’t fully implemented others are are facing some challenges that could undercut the whole agreement.”
Keating said he understood an announcement was “weeks away.”
British officials privately welcomed the imminent appointment of a US envoy. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one said they hope the US would encourage the EU to agree to make changes to the text of the protocol.
The UK argues that Brexit arrangements have resulted in onerous checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland, disrupting trade and angering unionists because the region is treated differently to the rest of the UK.
The EU counters that the checks — which the UK agreed to — are necessary to preserve the integrity of its single market due to the open land border with the Republic of Ireland.
UK and Ireland Put Up Positive Front as Brexit Grudge Recedes
Still, there are signs that the mood between the two sides is improving. Bloomberg reported last month that the EU has begun testing the UK’s live database tracking goods moving to Northern Ireland, with an aim to resolving the dispute over the checks.
Last week, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said a “landing zone” is possible “within the next few weeks” — though he also said there had been “no major breakthroughs.” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also said on a visit to Dublin last week a workable solution “is within reach.”