Iron Lady of the South Atlantic?

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Not everyone thought well of Mrs Thatcher

In March, as the bells tolled, the people of Britain remembered Margaret Thatcher for better or for worse.

She was also remembered in the South Atlantic by the Falkland Islanders who owe their continuing autonomy to Mrs T’s resolve in 1982.

In another part of the South Atlantic the people of Argentina should have given thanks to the grocer’s daughter for the role she played in bringing down the Junta. The Iron Lady believed in democracy, she believed in doing what was right and in doing so opened the way for the return to democracy in Argentina.

The Falkland Islands were catapulted to prominence following the Argentine invasion in 1982. The war changed the British view of the Islands; they were no longer inconvenient smudges on the map to be sloughed off; they became the manifestation of Thatcher’s revitalised Britain.

I never visited Argentina during that period of new democracy but I got a sense that Les Malvinas were not, at that time, a national issue. People were focussed on democracy and the economy.

In the 90’s, I enjoyed very amicable relations with the Argentinian officers with whom I worked on various overseas military missions. The Falkland Islands were rarely mentioned and we spent more time reminiscing about Maradona’s “hand of god” goal in 1986.

Now things are very different. President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner has shrilly pursued Les Malvinas as far and wide as the UN and the Vatican. Her response to the overwhelming vote in March to remain a British Oversea’s Territory ( the results showed that 99.8 per cent of the Islanders had voted yes, with a 92 per cent turnout among the approximately 1,650 Falkland Islands eligible to vote) was to declare that it was as if “a bunch of squatters were to vote on whether or not to keep occupying a building illegally.”

Another Argentine politician, Senator Daniel Filmus described the vote as a “publicity stunt”. He said “We must denounce this trickery that pretends to represent the popular participation of an implanted population.” These are extraordinary remarks from the child of European immigrants, who now acts as a democratic leader.

The question which perplexes me is why do the Argentinian leaders expend such energy on the issue of Les Malvinas? England and France came to working arrangements over the Channel Islands, which are only tens of miles offshore, many centuries ago.

Is it the sense of loss? Hardly. The Falkland Islands are 500 kilometres away from the Argentine mainland – apply that in Europe and it takes you from Dover to the town of Wiesbaden in Germany. They were never continuously settled by Argentinians and it appears to have been a dead issue between 1849 – 1941. There is no emotional similarity to the forced division of Ireland or Germany.

Is it a useful means to divert the Argentine population from the economic woes? Perhaps. The Argentine economy is struggling with reduced growth (2.6%) and rising inflation with an official figure of 10.5% – disputed by the International Monetary Fund – and the real figure assessed to be around 25%. Difficult days for the majority of the population.

Is it a means of capitalising on the South Atlantic oil bonanza? Possibly. It is estimated that the Falkland Islands could receive up to $10 billion in tax revenues and royalties over a 25 year period. However the Argentine economy is rated at 22 in the world with a GDP of $474 billion, which makes the Falkland Island oil income a mere drop in the ocean.

Is it to enhance de Kirchner’s personal standing? Probably.

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President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner

Christina de Kirchner has set her sights on changing the Argentine constitution to enable her to have a third, and who knows possibly fourth consecutive, term in office. But she is beset with falling ratings and accusations of corruption in the Argentine media.

Who could blame her if she aspired to portray herself as Argentina’s Iron Lady by reclaiming Les Malvinas?

The problem is that de Kirchner has no chance of achieving this and runs the very real risk of making herself look naive in the world’s eye. The Falkland’s issue is deadlocked with de Kirchner refusing to hold discussions with the Islanders, the British Government refusing to hold discussions without the Islanders, and the Islanders refusing to hold discussions on sovereignty issues.

Meanwhile the UN and the US sit on the sidelines encouraging the parties to find a resolution, in the knowledge that there is little they can either do or want to do to influence matters.

Ironically, the only person who could break the deadlock is de Kirchner herself. If she took the long view and studied the work of the British and Irish governments, in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the subsequent amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution in 1999, she might be able to come up with a cunning plan to normalise the South Atlantic to everyone’s mutual benefit and great personal acclaim as a stateswoman.

Is President Cristina de Kirchner brave enough to take bold decisions?

kirchener 1Only time will tell if she can become Argentina’s Iron Lady.

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The Falkland Islands Scab

As a young lad, I rode my bicycle at high speed. A consequence of this was that I inadvertently parted company with it and badly cut my right elbow. As the scar healed my mother beseeched me not to pick at it, which I ignored to my detriment. This episode taught me that a picked scab takes a lot longer to heal.

These thoughts came back to me as I read of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s advertisement to assert Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands. This is just one of a long running series of stunts that have characterised Argentina’s approach to sovereignty claims since the 1960s.

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Christ Church Cathedral, Port Stanly, with its iconic whalebone arch

The modern stunts, which include the Argentine Olympic hopeful Fernando Zylberberg filming himself for YouTube outside the Globe Tavern in Port Stanley, are tame compared to the more sinister hijacking, hostage taking, gun boat attacks and covert military landings that preceded them. However, they do continue to be a source of irritation, which does nothing to make the Falkland Islanders want a closer association with Argentina.

President Kirchner’s claim is that 180 years ago, Argentina was stripped of the Falkland Islands by the British. As many commentators have already pointed out, that this is not strictly correct. The ebb and flow of 18th and 19th century expansion meant that the islands were settled by various European power, whalers, sealers, German settlers from the United Provinces of the River Plate, American pirates and a penal settlement.

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Desolate, razor backed mountains outside Port Stanly

None of these settlements were sustained, although most of them placed flags and plaques claiming the territory for one nation or another. It was reported that the German settlers “appeared greatly rejoiced at the opportunity thus presented of removing with their families from a desolate region where the climate is always cold and cheerless” when the USS Lexington destroyed Luis Vernet’s settlement in 1831on grounds of piracy.

The British reappeared in strength in 1833 to re-establish a military outpost, followed by a sustainable colony in 1840 and stayed.

What is clear from all this is that the Falkland Islands were inhospitable and sufficiently distant from any nation to warrant significant interest or investment. However, the British settlers endured and learnt how to survive on this very edge of the habitable world.

They developed their own culture and way of life, which I have witnessed during numerous visits to the islands over a 10 year period. They became Falkland Islanders, just as the other British settlers in the New World colonies became American or Canadian or Newfoundlanders.

International lawyers will no doubt make a good living arguing over the principles of self- determination and territorial integrity in years to come but the fact is that 180 years of unbroken settlement is a pretty definitive claim. I remember the US Bicentennial in 1976 and I don’t recall the UN debating the American legitimacy of occupation.

President Kirchner knows that her country missed its opportunity to acquire the Falkland Islands during the late 1960s and 1970s when the British government behaved like a seasoned matron as it did its utmost to push its wallflower daughter into an arranged marriage.

Argentina, unable to comprehend the long game, failed to seduce, despite it being the country of the tango, and instead sought to impose its will on the islanders. The macho Latin culture collided with the ‘kith and kin” Anglo-Saxon culture and the marriage of convenience was never consummated.

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Daily reminders of the Argentine invasion of 1982

The Argentine “smash and grab” attempt in 1982 changed everything. There is no turning back to what might have been possible beforehand. The British public became aware of the Falkland Islands, through its champion The Sun newspaper.

The opportunity to pass the islands quietly to Argentina was lost. The islanders were granted full British citizenship and increased protection, which involved the building and maintenance of a significant military base on the Islands.

Since then the Falkland Islanders, despite Argentina’s best efforts to hinder them, have developed a thriving and sustainable economy. They are a self-governing British Overseas Territory and are comfortable with their relationship with Britain, as Barry Elsby, a member of the Falklands Islands Assembly, states.

“We are not a colony,” he says. “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is by choice.”

They have no reason to join with Argentina, so why would they want to?

The reality is that President Kirchner knows that she will not see the Falkland Islands peacefully integrated into Argentina during her life time. It is, however, a convenient rallying call for her own political ends and follows the well-worn tactics of previous Argentine rulers when things are difficult at home.

It is a short term strategy that sours neighbourly relations and increases the odds against any future partnership between the Islanders and their Latin neighbours.

My advice to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is to stop picking the Falklands scab and in two, maybe three generations a meaning relationship might be developed with the islanders that could enable Argentina to benefit from the Falklands Islands oil bonanza.Falklands-seal