Former MLA and now Mayor of Derry and Strabane District Council Michaela Boyle talks to David Whelan about her experience in the role, Brexit and the challenges of delivering on City Deal ambitions.
A Ballycolman native, Strabane’s Michaela Boyle admits that her current role is a “step change” from a previously elevated role within local government as the first female Chair of the legacy Strabane District Council. Since holding that post in 2010/11, Boyle went on to serve as an MLA for West Tyrone, where she chaired one of the Assembly’s most powerful committees in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), before taking the unique step in April of 2018 to run for a seat on Derry City and Strabane District Council while still an MLA.
After taking up the mayoral office following electoral success and now over half way through her term, the experienced politician is able to reflect on that first senior role within Strabane.
“It’s a completely different experience on a much bigger scale,” she says. “Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC) spans across a rural and urban population and offers a much bigger diversity of society to be representative of.”
Quizzed on whether such a task has been daunting or one she has embraced, Boyle says: “I have enjoyed every single day in office so far. Every day has brought a different perspective and challenge within such a diverse role and working across the various sectors. We have a vibrant city and towns. The openness and warmness that I have received speaks volumes for the people within this district council.”
Historically, investment and opportunity within Northern Ireland has gravitated towards Belfast, with the North West in a constant state of lobby to attract attention towards its own ambitions for economic growth. More microscopically, the same argument is also used when comparing resources to Derry as opposed to Strabane.
While Boyle admits she may have one time gone along with the view that Strabane could be seen as Derry’s “poor cousin”, her time in council has totally changed that perception.
“From within the Council and looking outward, it’s clear to see the volume of hard work that goes into ensuring that Strabane is included in every aspect of every economic policy that is being created for investment in our town centres.”
As evidence of her opinion, Boyle points to ambitions within the City Deal to regenerate Strabane’s town centre through the development of a health hub, leisure facilities, business supports and office spaces, amongst other things. “Strabane features very highly in importance on the Council’s radar,” she emphasises.
However, Boyle is quick to point out that representation and promotion of the area stretches further than the district council area alone. One of Boyle’s key roles has been to further raise awareness of the North West as a region. “As a city and as a council we market the North West region as an island North West. We work strongly with our partners in Donegal County Council to ensure this happens and both of our Chief Executives work hand in glove to ensure that the North West is an inclusive and attractive place to live, work and invest in.”
Collaboration with Donegal has been recognised as a major opportunity for both councils north and south. The North West Strategic Growth Partnership has an emphasis on driving regional economic growth and investment, physical and environmental development; and social and community cohesion and wellbeing across the North West and has representatives from the key government departments, north and south, with a brief in economic and regional development.
Boyle says that the cross-border partnership is something that excited her upon taking up the role and something that she sees great opportunity in. “The cross-border approach to inclusive and sustainable growth across the North West region is something that has existed for a number of years and something that I was excited about getting involved in when returning to local government.
“The region has a real success story to sell in terms of our skill pool and our entrepreneurship and we have a lot to offer through our key foundation, our people.”
The partnership is also critical to another key focus for the North West region, attracting international investment. Boyle herself has just returned from a trade mission to Boston, where she was joined by a local trade delegation and officials from both Donegal and Derry and Strabane councils. Last year, civic leaders from the North West and the City of Boston formalised the ‘Boston-Ireland North West Innovation Economic Partnership’ which pledges to “further develop and expand the existing bilateral relationship between the two regions to create business and job opportunities through joint initiatives in innovation and trade”.
Asked whether there were particular areas of focus for attracting investment into the North West, Boyle explains: “We hope to optimise our existing skillsets and in recent years there has been strong performance in and around technology, robotics and IT. We have a fantastic talent pool in the North West region and that has been recognised by some major employers opting to locate and expand in the region. Additionally, we have a talent pipeline through the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, the North West Regional College and Magee University. We are looking to the US and other markets to see how we can expand on our vision of getting the diaspora to work, learn and invest here.”
While the Council continues to build on its cross-border partnership, uncertainty around Brexit continues. Boyle admits that this is a challenge. “There is no economic good coming from Brexit,” she says, “but my council and Donegal Council have been working cohesively to ensure a degree of mitigation where possible across all sectors ranging from business through to education and health.
“As a region we sought a special status, recognising that a no deal outcome brings risks to our economic strategic goals. We continue to work on mitigating these risks, not just in Derry and Strabane but across the island’s North West region.”
Other challenges that exist need tackling. Derry and Strabane has the highest unemployment rates in Northern Ireland, unaided by a legacy of academic under achievement and under investment in its infrastructure and connectivity.
While it is acknowledged that central government must assist if these challenges are to be tackled, the Council has been proactive in its approach. In November 2017, DCSDC published its Strategic Growth Plan, the Community Plan. Two years on and the first Statement of Progress for the Strategic Growth Plan for Derry and Strabane, which Boyle describes as a “significant milestone” in community planning, has been published. The report, which details progress on economic, social and environmental indicators has been received positively.
Boyle says: “To be welcomed is the indication that through the Strategic Growth Plan for Derry and Strabane there are strong indications that change is already beginning to take effect in seven out of the eight outcome areas prioritised in the plan, with progress occurring at a faster rate than expected.”
Core to the Council’s growth plans is the implementation of over £100 million of investment pledged through the Derry and Strabane City Deal which was officially announced in May 2019. However, receipt of funding is not expected to be available until late 2020 and with the city deal having been in the pipeline for a number of years now, Boyle admits to a sense of “frustration” around the timeframe.
The Mayor says that it is important that a restored Executive is equipped with the powers to deliver all of the changes needed in terms of the economics of the North West region and the city deal.
A key tenet of the Council’s strategy in attracting people to the region is its offering. Boyle, as Mayor, recently oversaw the Council’s largest annual Halloween festivities in Derry, for which the City now receives international recognition. However, Boyle also recognises opportunity for growth.
“Through our Halloween events we have amassed a wealth of experience, which we continue to build upon, in marketing the region and our tourism experience. We’re looking very closely at how we utilise that in recognising other avenues as well.”
Derry’s Walls are another major draw to the City but while the Council recognises what it does well, there are also hopes of maximising other opportunities such as natural offerings including the Sperrins, rivers and the loughs, historic villages and heritage houses and rural hinterlands.
Boyle lists the development and promotion of the North West region’s rivers and waterways to enhance connectivity and improve tourism growth as a progression for which she would like to leave a legacy of in her year in office.
Summing up her time so far, the Mayor, who pledged to promote jobs and investment in the North West, positive mental health and women’s rights upon taking up office, is happy with the progress she has made.
“As Mayor I have worked towards achieving those initial ambitions and I will continue to do so even when not in office.”
The mother of four daughters, who alongside deputy Mayor Cara Hunter became the first female-only mayoral team since the Council’s creation in 2015, is also conscious of her role’s potential influence on other women.
“I am very conscious of my role in ensuring young people are successful in what they do and are equipped with the skills to do that. Inclusivity is important and I would like to see more women take on leadership roles.
“Undoubtedly, there is an added challenge for women, particularly in an era when social media is being used to level abuse at women in prominent roles. Women should be free from abuse and discrimination to achieve their ambitions and leadership roles. Our rights, as women, need protected and in my role, I have striven to challenge society’s perceptions on a daily basis to ensure that other women feel comfortable in becoming leaders.”