Falklands: Only the islanders can decide now

The sun setting over the Falkland Islands. Below: Survivors of the attack on RFA Sir Galahad coming ashore in life rafts at San Carlos Bay .
The sun setting over the Falkland Islands. Below: Survivors of the attack on RFA Sir Galahad coming ashore in life rafts at San Carlos Bay .
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Argentina is sabre-rattling over the ownership of the Falklands. Military historian Jon Cooksey has visited the islands regularly and says it is the inhabitants’ opinion that matters most.

In the middle of the South Atlantic a row is brewing. It began when Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner publicly rebuked David Cameron in an open letter published in The Guardian and The Independent, about what she sees as Britain’s continued failure to negotiate a settlement over who owns the Falkland Islands – a British Overseas Territory 8,700 miles away. The following day, The Sun weighed in with its own open letter to President Kirchner printed in the Buenos Aires Herald, which also cited the United Nations; this time the UN charter which enshrines the principle of self–determination as a fundamental human right. The letter concluded with the tabloid telling the Argentine leader in no uncertain terms to keep her hands off.

Survivors of the attack on RFA Sir Galahad coming ashore in life rafts at San Carlos Bay

Survivors of the attack on RFA Sir Galahad coming ashore in life rafts at San Carlos Bay

Given the circumstances President Kirchner got off lightly. Thirty one years ago, during the Falklands War, The Sun was responsible for such controversial headlines as, “Argy Bargy”, “Stick it up your Junta” and, most infamously, “Gotcha”, following the attack on the Argentine warship General Belgrano on May 2 1982, which resulted in the loss of 323 lives and a political storm over the legality of Margaret Thatcher’s order to sink her.

Having visited the Falklands several times during the course of research for books on the Falklands War or to lead civilian and military battlefield tours, from the perspective of this Yorkshireman at least, the bizarre exchange of open letters seemed aimed at the wrong audience entirely. If President Kirchner or The Sun really wanted to state their case and get an honest response they should have ignored the national press on both countries and booked space in The Penguin News.

Yes, you read it correctly: The Penguin News – “national” newspaper and one of the true voices of the Falkland Islands. After all, it is the collective opinion of the people of the Falklands – all 3,000 of them – which really matters amidst all this international wrangling and name calling. As someone who has come to know a little of the culture of the Islands and its people during my visits, I know there is no appetite among the Falkland Islanders to throw themselves into the embrace of Argentina any time soon.

If President Kirchner – presently grappling with internal challenges of political corruption, inflation and economic uncertainty – had spent a little more time reading The Penguin News rather than following precedents set by previous Argentine regimes in using external grievances to divert attention from domestic problems, then she would be all too well aware of the Islanders’ views.

My last visit to the Falklands was last summer and even then, while many Britons were heading off to sunnier climes, I flew straight into the teeth of a South Atlantic winter and heightened diplomatic tension between Britain and Argentina.

The previous month, at the G20 summit in Mexico, President Kirchner had tried to ambush David Cameron into accepting a folder filled with the same UN resolutions she referred to in her letter last week. The PM had refused, but it was clear when I landed at Mount Pleasant Airport that the diplomatic “chill” that had penetrated the Islands matched the sub-zero temperatures.

I was there at the invitation of the Officer Commanding B Coy of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (3 Para) which, in a touch of pure military symmetry, was then in the middle of its tour of duty as the resident infantry company of the Falkland Islands garrison, established after the 1982 war as permanent military deterrent to any Argentine threat.

Falklands Hero – my biography of Rotherham-born Sergeant Ian McKay, also of B Company, 3 Para, who had received a posthumous Victoria Cross – was published last spring and the present company commander was keen to use my original research to ensure that all his officers and soldiers – many of them already veterans of their own war in Afghanistan – learned of the actions of a South Yorkshire hero who holds such a prestigious place in their regimental history.

I felt it an honour to follow in the footsteps of Ian McKay and the men of 3 Para of 1982 in company with their direct descendants and to share the history of what their battalion had achieved.

However, I was told it would not be politic to discuss the reason for my visit until it was over and the Paras had returned to the UK. The reason was obvious: to have soldiers from such a high-profile and elite unit back on the Islands 30 years to the date after the Argentine surrender would surely have been interpreted as inflammatory in Buenos Aires.

The Falkland Islands are quite remarkable, and unlike any other place I have ever visited. For me there is still a real sense of being on the edge of the known world.

It always strikes me that I am standing on one of the world’s last great frontiers – a place where nature is still largely untamed, where vast riches of natural resources still lie untapped and where the people – talented, self-sufficient and warm-hearted – are deeply passionate about being associated with Britain in a way that many of us living in Britain itself today seem to have forgotten.

They are passionate about their “Britishness” precisely because they choose to remember that unlike we British, who have not suffered invasion since 1797, 
their lives were irrevocably changed by the Argentine invasion just 31 years ago.

Many Falkland Islanders today can remember vividly a time when their elder statesmen were forced on to aircraft at gunpoint to be flown into solitary confinement, when whole settlements were herded into a community hall with just one toilet for more than 100 people and when their homes were ill-used by cold, hungry Argentine troops. And all this just a few years after the Islanders had heard, via the BBC World service, of scores of political prisoners of the then Argentine regime simply disappearing in what became known as the “Dirty War”.

Given this history, little wonder then that the Islanders today remain deeply suspicious of the motives of any Argentine government, democratically elected or not.

In any event, in a few months time it will all be academic. On March 10 the Falkland Islanders will hold their own referendum on their political future and their voice will finally be heard.

As I flew out of the Falklands after my tour with the Parachute Regiment, I picked up a copy of The Penguin News to while away some time on the 21-hour flight back to the UK. There I read that plans for the referendum were already underway and that the Islanders were keen to frame a precise, positive and unbiased referendum question on their political future.

The aim is to send a clear message to the international community that it was the Islanders and the Islanders alone who would determine their own fate. Falkland Islands Government Chief Executive Keith Padgett, was quoted as saying that the referendum was an opportunity to show the world that the Islanders were responsible, and that they really knew what form of government they wanted.

But he also warned that if the process was badly managed then there was the potential for disaster. Given the Islanders’ history with their larger South Atlantic neighbour the desire to be seen to be acting in a democratic and unbiased manner is refreshing and I wondered whether President Kirchner might have read the piece.

Given the tone of her letter last week, and the way in which she and her government seem to dismiss out of hand the notion of taking the wishes of the Falkland Islanders into account since they view the population as “implanted”, perhaps not.

I for one am not taking any 
bets on the Falkland Islanders laying in large stocks of Argentine flags to fly from their rooftops come March 11.