DERRY, No. Ireland – An American businessman who helped replace guns with jobs in Derry during the Troubles received an honorary degree from Ulster University last month.
Boston native Stephen Coyle, a director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority under Mayor Ray Flynn in the 1980s whose family hails from Derry and Galway, was recognized for his work promoting peace and prosperity in the Maiden City during the conflict, notably his work in helping to bring about the creation of Foyleside shopping centre.
The landmark building, initiated by former SDLP leader John Hume and then Northern Ireland secretary of state Richard Needham, was the first major regeneration project in the city since the Troubles began. But for Mr. Coyle it was simply “another project.”
One of 14 children, Mr. Coyle, who is CEO of the $5 billion AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust in America and has supported major building projects around the world, was first brought to Derry in 1986 by Mr. Hume, who enlisted his help to drive economic development in the city.
“His notion was Derry will be the market place for north west Ireland, period. He just believed it. Now who would have believed that in 1986? When you come to Derry in 1986 it’s an armed camp,” Mr. Coyle said. “You’d be stopped and frisked every other block, low-scale harassment to encourage you to go home. You’d be up against the wall, and I’m not being melodramatic: They’ve have the gun to your head saying what are you doing here, why don’t you go home.
“There are curfews, people don’t go out and meet, people who should know each other don’t mix. And when they mix they’re not talking about economic development, they’re talking about what’s the next step in the Troubles, what’s the new political future going to be. So that’s not what you see in an area actively engage in economic development.
“We met with everybody, we met with people who had credible links to paramilitaries,” said Mr. Coyle. “We met with the government and we came to a conclusion - you had to create a statement project. People had been doing investment on a small scale for some time, but it was not having a cumulative effect in changing people’s mindsets, it just wasn’t having an impact.”
Despite being told such a major capital project was impossible and fraught with danger given the conflict, Mr. Coyle and others, including fellow US businessman Frank Costello, persevered with the Foyleside development.
“I didn’t come at it thinking ‘Oh, this will never work.’ It never entered my mind. Even with what was going on and people saying it will get blown up. We wanted to create an outbreak of ordinary economic life.”
The 65-million pound project employed more than 1,000 people through its construction, with the total economic impact estimated at around 1,500 jobs. Hailed at its opening in 1995 as the most important milestone in Derry’s retailing history, the centre served as a catalyst for economic development in the north west.
The Boston’s businessman’s role in promoting economic prosperity did not end there, though as he was part of the team that conceived and launched the Ulster Community Investment Trust, one of the most successful micro-lending programs in the UK.
The trust provides loans exclusively to other third sector organizations such as community groups, charities, sports clubs, and social enterprises, and since 2001 has committed in excess of 50 million pounds to over 360 organisations north and south.
Over the 30 years since he first came to Northern Ireland, Steve Coyle believes the change in Derry is “night and day” and is honored to have played some part in the transformation.
“I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with people here to help make a difference. It was very important to me. It inspired what I did back home and what I did back home in America gave me the confidence that anything could be done here if you just got people enlisted in the enterprise.”
Mr. Coyle - who has developed close ties with Ulster University and led on the development of the John J. Sweeney Scholarship, which supports one US student a year to study - described his honorary degree as a “great honor,” but was quick to credit the influence of others for the sea change in the north west.
“Derry had the spirit, they had the leadership, and they had the will, that’s how it happened. It was an honor to be engaged, just to play a part.”
Flynn hails Coyle recognition
In a statement following the degree ceremony in Derry, Ray Flynn said that “Steve Coyle is committed to helping all people regardless of their race or ethnicity, where they live in this world or whether they are rich or poor.
“I’ve seen first-hand his dedication to our homeland in Ireland. This award is appropriate as recognition of his decades of work to make a better society in Ireland, in Boston, and across the country. The love, respect, and appreciation that the people of Boston have for Ireland is boundless.”