Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP
Joe Kennedy III, the 42-year-old scion of one of America’s most famous political families, has agreed to serve as the special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs, the US state department announced on Monday.
The former Massachusetts congressman and grandson of US attorney general Robert F Kennedy is replacing Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff under Donald Trump, who stepped down from the role last year.
Related: Edward Markey defeats Joe Kennedy in the Massachusetts Democratic primary
“In this capacity, he will 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 United States and Northern Ireland,” the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“His role builds on the longstanding US commitment to supporting peace, prosperity, and stability in Northern Ireland.”
Kennedy’s appointment comes at a moment of elevated tensions between Washington and London over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that dictates post-Brexit trade regulations in the UK province, and it comes ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement next year which aimed to end nearly 30 years of political violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles.
Kennedy called his appointment “an incredible honor” and said he looked forward to helping the Joe Biden White House “reaffirm US commitment to Northern Ireland and to promote economic prosperity and opportunity for all its people”.
Kennedy graduated from Stanford University before working with the US Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. He earned a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he studied under the now-US senator Elizabeth Warren.
He became a US congressman in 2012 and in 2018 was selected to offer a rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union address – an outing that handed Republicans an easy mark when he appeared with copious amounts of lip balm.
In a subsequent TV appearance, he joked that he had “decided to go a little bit light on the ChapStick this morning … which is probably a wise choice”.
Biden has lobbied for an agreement between London and Brussels on trade to be made before the Good Friday anniversary arrives. While the appointment is under the umbrella of a trade mandate, a posting to the region in various forms has been in place since Senator George Mitchell was appointed the US special envoy for Northern Ireland by President Bill Clinton to help negotiate the Good Friday pact.
The US ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronintweeted after Monday’s announcement of Kennedy’s new role that he was “smart, hardworking and the perfect person for the job”.
Kennedy has not held political office since last year. In 2019, he unsuccessfully challenged Massachusetts’ Democratic senator Ed Markey in what was described as an intra-party fight that exposed divisions on the US political left.
Kennedy, who had described the contest as a “fight of our lives”, had pitted himself against a sitting senator who enjoyed the support of the progressive wing of the party but largely failed to articulate a compelling reason for his candidacy other than his political lineage in the state.
The Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren said Kennedy was “really an amazing person” but did not ultimately switch support from Markey. Kennedy’s loss marked the first time a member of his family had lost a nationwide election.
His appointment as envoy to Northern Ireland makes him the third Kennedy family member to serve in a diplomatic post under Biden.
Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F Kennedy, is Biden’s ambassador to Australia. Victoria Kennedy, the widow of the late senator Ted Kennedy, is ambassador to Austria.
Given his Irish American family’s lineage, Kennedy’s appointment has strong political overtones despite its economic focus.
The former chairperson of the Massachusetts Democratic party, Philip Johnston, told the Boston Globe that Kennedy’s selection underscored the importance of Northern Ireland to the Biden administration.
“The Kennedy family has been involved with Ireland forever and there’s no better collaborator and partner than Joe Kennedy,” Johnston said. “He’s a perfect choice for this role.”