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Coyle Gets Honorary Degree From Ulster University



WASHINGTON – Stephen Coyle, CEO of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT), today received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Ulster University for his decades-long support for economic regeneration and peace building in Northern Ireland.

Ulster University cited Mr. Coyle’s role in development of the $85 million Foyleside Centre, a grand marketplace in Derry that was one of the first major regeneration projects since the “Troubles” erupted in the late 1960s.  The 30-year conflict caused more than 3,500 deaths, many of them civilians, thousands of grave injuries, and led to aggressive violations of civil and human rights.  

This “statement” project as it was called by its planners - the Honorable John Hume, Minister Richard Needham and Mr. Coyle – led to a major shift in U.S. policy by President Clinton, who advocated for peace after he visited the mall shortly after it opened in 1995. When Mr. Hume accepted his Nobel Prize for being an architect of peace in Ireland, he said in an aside: “In the late 1980s, some Men from Boston came to Derry and helped develop and build a project that let us start trading guns for jobs.” The mall project created more than 1,000 jobs and economic impact of $100 million, demonstrating that jobs and economic development could lead to peace.

“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,” said Raymond Flynn, the former Mayor of Boston, who hired Mr. Coyle to be his Director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). “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.” 

In the United States, Mr. Coyle has impacted cities and working families during his 50-year career in urban planning, housing production and finance, and economic development. As Director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Mr. Coyle is widely credited with providing the vision that reshaped Boston’s downtown, financial district and neighborhoods during the 1980s building boom. With innovative programs such as Boston’s “Linkage” program, Mr. Coyle was a strong voice for racial equity and channeling resources to distressed communities.

Since 1992, Mr. Coyle has been HIT’s CEO, where he has led its significant growth. During that time, the HIT has invested more than $6.3 billion, creating an estimated 90,000 housing units and nearly 60,000 union construction jobs.  These investments have helped provide affordable housing for an estimated 100,000 families.

In an encomium, Prof. Brandon Hamber, the John Hume & Thomas P. O'Neill Chair in Peace at Ulster University’s International Conflict Research Institute, declared, “In short, four words capture the essence of Steve Coyle: Bostonian-Family-Ireland-Housing.  Steve’s Irish roots trace back to Galway (his mother was a Flaherty) and Donegal on the Coyle side.  Anyone who comes from the North West of Ireland, and Derry in particular, knows that Coyle is a common name in these parts.”
Prof. Hamber noted that Mr. Coyle is well known as a voracious student of far ranging topics.  “In any conversation, he is as likely to quote Doxiadis (a “famous” town planner) or the Illiad, as a contemporary architect, playwright or politician. You would want Steve on your team in University Challenge.”

Regardless, Prof. Hamber said that Mr. Coyle never forgot his Irish roots.

“He roamed Sligo with the head of the Yeats Society in the 1970s, visited several times in the 1980s and recently, and he is prone to singing Irish folk songs with passion that brings a tear to the eye,” Prof. Hamber said.  “Steve is a prominent and public Irish-American advocating for development on the island of his ancestors. He was a Chair of the American Ireland Fund’s Washington, DC Galas in 2016 and 2017, raising significant sums for community work in Ireland. Steve has developed close ties with Ulster University and led the development of a significant philanthropic scholarship program – the John J. Sweeney Scholarship – which supports one US student a year to study at the University.”

In accepting his degree, Mr. Coyle said, “I accept humbly this magnificent honor that you have conferred on me this day. I will never be able to repay you for letting me share this great day with you.”

Moreover, Mr. Coyle talked about his history of visiting Ireland, and working to spur economic development despite the challenges caused by the tension related to the Troubles. 

Recalling one trip in the late 1980s, Mr. Coyle said, “One evening, way too late, after a dinner in the South with the Catholic and Anglican Bishops of Ireland, the British at the Strabane Crossing questioned us. It was not an uncommon thing to be stopped then. On any day, in the middle of the day, on the main streets of Derry, we would be stopped and frisked. Strabane Crossing was different. It was Orwellian in design and enforcement.  That night, as my papers were being “reviewed” for the Nth time that trip, a young soldier asked me why I didn’t just go home and stop meddling in Derry’s affairs. I answered: “My name is Coyle. My people have lived in Derry since the 6th century. I am home.”

Speaking to the Ulster University’s graduates, who gave Mr. Coyle and standing ovation for his passionate address, Mr. Coyle left them with three life lessons.  

“First.  You are special people, a special generation. You are the ones that years ago your families, your neighbors, your teachers, your friends, your spiritual leaders—came together and decided to change Derry’s future for you. Embrace that understanding and that responsibility. There are no great burdens that come with it other than just doing your job for your family, your profession, for Derry, for Ireland, for the world beyond. Maybe it’s being an entrepreneur and creating a start-up that eventually employs hundreds. Maybe it’s writing the next great Irish drama or becoming a successor to Seamus Heaney. Maybe it’s following in the footsteps of a parent, or family member or friend into business you’ve thought about for years. Whatever it is that you do with your energy and talents, and the powerful education you celebrate today--remember as often as you can, the sacrifices of others who wanted you to have this day.

“Second. Don’t run from the big challenge, the big problem, the big moment or the big idea. Embrace them. If your gut and your training, your knowledge and instincts tell you that you are up to the challenge, take it. It was once observed, that we all have failures at one time or another. But, as Bacon observed, it’s better for you to be the one who fails because you did not succeed, rather than the one who fails for not trying at all. Give back in proportion to what you have received, and more. Be the one others can count on to get the “impossible” done. Whatever walk of life you choose, be a difference maker.

“Third. I am sure you can’t count the number of times that you’ve been told that the Devil is in the details. But, so is the joy and so is the path of knowing. The great power of the education you have received at the University of Ulster is not limited to what you have learned no matter how considerable. The great value is that you have learned how to learn. This is the “pearl of great price.”


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