Falkland Islands faces own independence referendum

The Union Jack waves over Stanley in The Falklands. Picture: Getty
The Union Jack waves over Stanley in The Falklands. Picture: Getty
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The Falkland Islanders vote this weekend to decide whether to retain their link to the UK. With the result a foregone conclusion, what exactly is the point, ask Tom Peterkin and Alasdair Soussi

WITH a looming battle over oil ownership, a dispute over sovereignty and a referendum on its way, at first it might appear that the Falkland Islands have much in common with Scotland. But the comparisons end when the result of the Falklands poll, which takes place this weekend, is considered.

A Routemaster bus passing through Stanley. Picture: PA

A Routemaster bus passing through Stanley. Picture: PA

Unlike the deep political divisions that mark the arguments over Scotland’s constitutional future, the Falklands plebiscite will deliver a near unanimous vote in favour of retaining its link to the United Kingdom.

On Sunday and Monday the islands’ inhabitants will vote in a referendum that is a foregone conclusion (two days have been set aside to ensure all voters have the maximum opportunity to exercise their democratic right). Around 98 per cent of the 1,586 electorate are expected to answer “yes” to the question “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”

So what is the point of holding a referendum to which the answer is obvious?

Almost inevitably, the answer to the question lies in Argentina’s claim to the archipelago, lying 300 miles off its coast in the South Atlantic. Recently, the Argentine government has been flexing its muscles over the territory, evoking the tensions that led Margaret Thatcher to send a task force to repel the Argentine invasion in 1982.

A war cemetery near Darwin, Falklands. Picture: Getty

A war cemetery near Darwin, Falklands. Picture: Getty

This time round, a return to war does not seem likely, given Argentina’s military strength is a shadow of what it was then. But there is still much at stake. There is a theory that Argentine governments tend to look to the Falklands during times of hardship in order to distract from the misery of economic decline.

However, oil lies at the heart of this latest attempt to claim ownership of the islands. There is a fortune to be won and lost with the discovery of black gold in the waters off the Falklands. “We are in that rather crucial period when oil seems to have been discovered in commercial quantities but hasn’t yet started to be produced and this is when the Falklands Islands government must try and secure foreign investment to make that possible,” says Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a Latin-American expert with Chatam House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. “If they succeed the islands will become very rich and the chances of Argentina making any headway in its claim falls to zero. So the Argentinians have to do what they can to try and block it. That’s a matter of considerable importance to them. That’s probably more important than this argument that when you have a difficult domestic situation you seek some foreign venture to distract the population. There may be a bit of that, but not a huge amount.”

Argentina’s foreign minister, Hector Timerman agrees that oil is the key, although he sees things from a different perspective. Timerman, who has predicted that Argentina will obtain sovereignty of the Falklands within two decades in spite of the wishes of the islanders, said recently: “I think the fanatics are not in Buenos Aires [but] maybe in the United Kingdom because they are 14,000km [8,700 miles] away from the islands. I think they are using the people living in the islands for political [reasons] and to have access to oil and natural resources which belong to the Argentine people.”

Argentina argues that the descendants of British settlers who inhabit the Falklands are foreign colonists, who should have no say over the future of the islands – a position the UK Government disagrees with, asserting that it has a prior claim, having had a presence on the Falklands in the 18th century.

In today’s world, the UK Government maintains that its current jurisdiction over the islands is based on the self-determining will of the islanders themselves, the majority of whom are British by birth or descent.

Argentina contends that it inherited the territory from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s, and that their proximity to the South American mainland is reason enough for its 180-year-old claim.

So it is against this background that the Falklands government called the referendum to reassert the islanders’ belief that they are not a colony of the United Kingdom, but a British Overseas Territory by choice.

Stacy Bragger, news editor at the Falkland Islands Radio Service, says: “The upcoming referendum on the political status of the FalklandIslands is seen as a way to demonstrate to the international community the wishes of Falkland islanders and what we want for our future. It will show in a clear and obvious way how we want to be governed.

“The Argentine government has become increasingly desperate in recent years in their attempts to make some kind of progress with their claim. Their aggressive policies towards the Falklands have continued to be unsuccessful, but particularly since 2012, the 30th anniversary year of the 1982 Falklands War, there has been increased media attention globally on the dispute.”

When the votes are counted and the referendum delivers the result that everyone expects, the success of the exercise will be judged on the reaction of the international community. Those voting already know that the result will be given a frosty reception in the Argentine capital Beunos Aires. Argentina has already said it will ignore the outcome with the ambassador to London, Alicia Castro, describing the vote as “100 per cent predictable” and a “PR exercise”.

Castro added: “The positions of the other countries of the Latin Americas and the Caribbean is clearly that we strongly (protest) the colonial enclave in the south of our continent and the reaping of our natural resources, fishing and oil.”

There are Latin-American countries who are sympathetic towards the Argentinian position through their belief that the continent of South America should achieve a consistency of foreign policy. But, according to Professor Bulmer-Thomas, there is a chance that an electoral show of strength from a couple of thousand islanders will make an impact on South America and the world stage in general: “The islanders may feel that round the world there is some confusion about what they want. This will obviously clarify that. And it is true there are some countries that are perhaps sympathetic to Argentina now, who would feel a little differently if 98 per cent vote in favour of staying British.”

Graham Bound, a Falklander – now living in London – and the founding editor of the islands’ newspaper Penguin News, agrees. “The referendum might be useful when it comes to talking to other nationalities, neighbouring South American states like Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. They pay lip-service to what Argentina says but they don’t really feel passionate about it. And, if one can undermine Argentine efforts in those quarters then that won’t be a bad thing to do from the point of view of the Falklands.”

For the islanders themselves, it is about declaring that they are as British as Buckinghamshire. “Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands is totally erroneous,” says Bragger. “The sooner the Argentine government realise that this is our home and that we should be the ones to decide our own future, the better for them and for us.”