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Paul Vallely: Long-term thinking needed on Falklands

15 September 2023

Paul Vallely detects signs that the sovereignty issue might not be settled

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THE man currently favourite to become the next President of Argentina, the libertarian maverick Javier Milei, has declared that the rights of the residents of the Falklands must be respected in any future discussions over the sovereignty of the islands. This interesting development appears to bring him into line with what has been the policy of the UK government since a British task force retook the territory in 1982, after it had been invaded by an Argentinian military junta.

You might suppose that this was a settled issue. After all, 99.8 per cent of the Islanders voted to remain British at the last referendum in 2013. But there have been recent stirrings.

In July, a summit of European Union and Latin American leaders published a declaration referring to “the Islas Malvinas”. The British Foreign Office objected, but was told briskly that Brexit meant that the UK now had no veto on EU language. Argentina jubilantly claimed that the EU had officially recognised its sovereignty.

There may well be something in this. Recent publication of secret US telegrams from 1982 reveals that Germany and other European governments thought that the British were “out of control” during the Falklands conflict, and that the sinking of the Belgrano, with the loss of more than 300 lives, was “out of proportion” to the problem. China has recently voiced support for Argentina’s claim to “Las Malvinas”, calling British possession “a historical legacy of colonialism”. The United Nations suggests that this colonial history means that Britain cannot invoke the principle of self-determination of peoples to justify continued possession.

Practical politics is a different matter. The British Government has just spent nearly £7 million to extend the lifespan of the aircraft runways on the Falklands, and has delivered new Sikorsky support helicopters. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, told MPs last month that Britain could “absolutely” defend the islands. The Bishop for the Falkland Islands, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, has blessed a chart that shows the 258 beaches, bays, harbours, islets, and inlets recently named after every British person who died in the conflict.

Reconciling all this is tricky. When the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Brad Birch to write a play about Britain, he travelled 8000 miles to the Falklands, where his uncle had served in the conflict, and was confronted by the intractability of political theory and real life. In the resulting play, Falkland Sound, the Thatcherite politics of the time is depicted in shrill agit-prop caricature, but the lives of the islanders are shown with a quotidian charm, as if transplanting The Archers from bucolic Borsetshire to the windblown South Atlantic.

Discussion about sovereignty is probably too hot a potato for today’s politicians. They will not want to reopen notions, such as joint sovereignty or leaseback, that were explored in the 1980s by politicians such as Peter Carrington and Roy Jenkins, until they were silenced by Mrs Thatcher’s task-force triumph.

But, in an era in which Britain is finally negotiating with Mauritius about the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago, it might be productive for those behind the scenes to begin to think creatively about a long-term resolution. And the arrival of a freethinker such as Javier Milei in Buenos Aires could make a useful starting point.

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