Business

Paul McErlean: New envoy Joe and Protocol can make two of our best assets

US President Joe Biden has appointed the former Congressman Joe Kennedy III as US special envoy to Northern Ireland. A member of the Kennedy political family, the 42-year-old fills a role that has been vacant since January 2021 after the envoy under Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, stepped down from the post
Paul McErlean

NORTHBROOKE Illinois is a suburb of Chicago and home to the Allstate Insurance corporation. In October 1998, I went there with a delegation from here, led by the then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam.

I recounted the fuller story of that visit and Mowlam’s hilarious outflanking of the chief operating officer of Allstate, Ed Liddy, in this column previously. But I raise it again because when I think of American investment here, I usually think of Allstate first.

At the time, Mowlam and Liddy announced that Allstate was going to create 400 jobs in a new software centre in Belfast. Since then, Allstate NI has grown and diversified across three locations in Belfast and the north west, and it employs over 2400 people, six times the original investment. It is a proper good news story and a business that adds massive value to the economy here.

Of course, it is not the only major US company here. The list is extensive and impressive, though we still don’t have some of the biggest US names, like Apple and Facebook, who employ thousands of people in Dublin but haven’t yet ventured north of the border. I do not think it is unfair to say that US investment on this island has transformed both economies. No other country comes close to the US in terms of impact. And there is potentially much more to come and our new US envoy, Joe Kennedy III, will hopefully play a big part in unlocking it.

Young Joe is the grandson of Bobby Kennedy, a man who surely would have been President had he not been assassinated in 1968. His father was Joe Kennedy II, a former Congressman who is best remembered here for his altercation with a British soldier on the Falls Road in 1988.

His son, Joe III, appears to be a very considerable character and his appointment, in my view, is a real coup and a brilliant opportunity for economic advancement here. He is a graduate of Stanford in California and did his graduate Law qualifications in Harvard. He practiced law as a district attorney and after that, he served as a Congressman for the Massachusetts 4th district from 2013 to 2021. He also spent two years working in the Dominican Republic for the much-lauded Peace Corps after he graduated.

While in Congress he served on a number of notable committees in areas such as commerce, education and science, space and technology. He was a popular and highly effective public representative and there appears to be no chinks in his armour though one blip came when he was beaten by the incumbent Democratic Senator, Ed Markey, who he had challenged for the role.

Having agreed to stand down from his House of Representatives role and lost the Democratic primary to Markey, Joe was left last year with time to reflect on future directions. He managed the defeat well and tweeted: "Here's what my family taught me: A legacy is earned."

This appointment from President Biden gives Joe Kennedy an opportunity to rebuild his political career and it gives us as a region a great chance to make the most of his time in the job. While there has been some predictable negativity from a few unionists, the response to his appointment has been positive. What we need now is a strategy to use him front and centre as an advocate for trade and investment here.

I have been lucky to travel to Boston twice in recent years for business, and in that city alone lies the economic potential to inject real growth in our small economy. Now we have Joe Kennedy on the team, and we have the competitive advantage that the NI Protocol gives us, this really is a good time to push hard on our business and economic links with the US and particularly in Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts.

And while his job is primarily economic, it will be close to impossible for him to avoid the Protocol. Recent figures show that trade between GB and Northern Ireland has seen a more than £1 billion jump – up by 7 per cent a year after the NI Protocol was introduced, according to the latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

And overall, total sales by Northern Ireland companies increased by 13.6 per cent (£9.2bn). That meant sales rising to £77.1bn in 2021 – the largest value of total sales on record, not taking inflation into account.

While other factors including recovery from the pandemic are at play here, nobody will convince me that the NI Protocol is anything other than positive for the economy here. It needs fixed in places, and Joe Kennedy would do well to avoid the political machinations around it, but the Protocol is one of our best assets, in addition to Mr Kennedy himself.

In 2023, with other economic headwinds blowing against us, we are going to need all the help we can get, so roll on the start of Joe Kennedy’s work, we should all aim to make his tenure as US envoy, the most effective and successful it has ever been. Happy New Year to all.

:: Paul McErlean is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Andrew Webb

Business