Pithy and precise: The Post-It notes from Bruton’s era

Former taoiseach was in the habit of responding to reports using yellow stickers

John Bruton was in the habit of responding to reports sent to him by officials by writing observations on yellow Post-It stickers that survive in files from the Department of the Taoiseach.

A number of examples are contained in files for 1996 which have been released for public inspection in the National Archives.

In a report dated December 16th, Rory Montgomery, a diplomat then with the Anglo-Irish section of the Department of Foreign Affairs, relayed his conversation with the Church of Ireland bishop of Down and Conor, Dr Gordon McMullan. Their chat was in the context of the bishop’s retirement at the end of the year, after 11 years in the job.

It began by recalling the July events around Drumcree when an RUC prohibition on Orangemen marching down Garvaghy Road was reversed after widespread loyalist rioting and the murder of a Catholic taxi driver.

The bishop said there was “a universal conviction among unionists” that residents opposed to the march were “manipulated by Sinn Féin, who thrived on confrontation”.

He went on to express his “disgust” at a loyalist picket outside a Roman Catholic church in Harryville, Ballymena, in protest at the banning of an Apprentice Boys march through the mainly nationalist village of Dunloy, north of the Co Antrim town.

In his report, Montgomery wrote: “Bishop McMullan felt that it should be appreciated, in the South, and elsewhere, that those involved in such activities were genuinely a tiny minority, who in virtually no case had any connection with any Protestant church, or were susceptible to mainstream political or religious influence.”

In a pithy riposte, Bruton wrote on a Post-It, "The fact that [this] happens at all [underlined] is a sign of deep malaise and Bishop McMullan should recognise this but apparently does not."

The bishop said he believed that talks between the political parties were likely to end in stalemate. There was very little public interest in the sort of institutions likely to emerge, he opined.

“Most unionists are entirely indifferent to the creation of devolved government for Northern Ireland, especially if it is to be weak and hamstrung by checks and balances,” Montgomery reported. “Most nationalists, in his view, are equally indifferent to the prospect of North-South bodies, ‘except as one-in-the-eye for unionists’.”

Each side was driven, said the bishop, “by a desire to hold what it has and frustrate the other”.

This, read Bruton’s Post-It, “is a much neglected truth and should be stated more often”.

IRA ceasefire

Another report, dated December 13th and written by an Irish official with the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast, referenced doubts about a renewed IRA ceasefire. This report noted that the then northern secretary Patrick Mayhew agreed in the House of Commons with UUP leader David Trimble, who was sceptical about a restoration of the IRA ceasefire.

In his hand-written note, Bruton commented: "Mayhew may actually be right about [this]. SF have not [underlined] actually moved their position [underlined] on anything at all in all their talk."

There is another Post-It intervention by Bruton in the file, this one dated January 10th, 1997, with a hand-written note by Wally Kirwan, an assistant secretary in the taoiseach’s department, stating: “Taoiseach depressing!” - an apparent reference to the contents.

The report was written by Eamonn McKee, an Irish official in Belfast, on foot of a meeting with a Fr McKinlay, then four months into his stint as parish priest in Ballymurphy. The priest recalled mentioning to a fellow cleric that he felt the people of the parish were not really Catholic in a religious sense; the colleague told him that parishioners would not understand this view of them.

“To them,” McKee reported, relaying what Fr McKinlay said his colleague had said to him, “being a Catholic was being a nationalist for whom, when the time came, prayers would be said...

“Fr McKinlay considers himself a moderate and a nationalist. He attributed the difficulties of Northern Ireland to consistent British ineptitude and a unionism incapable of accommodating nationalism at any level. He saw little evidence of change over the years within unionism for good or ill.”

Bruton wrote on the Post-It: “This is a very good report. I believe it shows how things are.” (Archive file: 2021/98/26)

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times