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Falkland Islands Referendum

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Today the Falkland islanders showed unity over their future, with a referendum in which 99.8% of the votes cast were in favour of remaining British. The referendum asked them:

“Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”

Only three people voted against. Argentina has now been beaten, I would suggest, both on the battlefield and at the ballot box. It is time for Argentina to accept that the islanders have a right to be there. They do not deserve to be bullied, threatened or intimidated by a close neighbour.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about how the Argentines should behave. Does he agree that now is the time for the United Nations also to accept the will of the Falkland islanders?

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s point. This process will definitely be watched with great interest by the United Nations when self-determination, which is surely what a referendum is all about, is being considered.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter before the House. The referendum was clear: the Falkland islanders want to stay British. Does he feel that that message should be sent out from this House this evening to the Argentines—that the Falklands are British today, they will be British in 20 years’ time and they will be British for ever, as long as the people there want them to be?

I entirely endorse that point.

It is also right to remember those who passed away during the conflict 31 years ago, when 255 British troops died, 650 Argentinean troops passed away and three female islanders were also killed.

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to those members of the armed forces who gave their lives, especially those members of 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency and includes Royal Marines and the Royal Navy? They went out to the south Atlantic and did a deeply courageous job, and they should always be credited for all their hard work.

I entirely endorse that point.

Able Seaman Derek Armstrong, from the town of Prudhoe in my constituency, died when HMS Ardent was sunk on 22 May 1982. He was only 22 years of age. His memory is still celebrated by the fact that the most important award of the year given by his school, Prudhoe community high school, is the Derek Armstrong memorial award, which is presented each year to the best sportsperson. All troops, on all sides, should be remembered. We should pay particular tribute to those who are serving there and giving up their time to look after the Falkland Islands on an ongoing basis.

Will the hon. Gentleman also pay tribute to Colonel Tony Davies and to the Falkland Islands veterans association? The association’s Liberty Lodge in Stanley accommodates many of the veterans who return to the Falkland Islands to remember some of the experiences that they went through in 1992.

I totally agree. The way in which we look after the Falkland Islands has got better and better, under the previous Government and now under this one. The organisation that the hon. Gentleman mentions does a great job.

It is right to make it clear that the United Kingdom wants nothing more than peace, trade and prosperity with Argentina and the other south American countries. There are so many problems in this world, and it is surely wrong that we are in any way falling out over these islands. While we in this House stand four-square behind the residents of the Falkland Islands and their overwhelming vote in favour of self-determination, we must try to reach out to the Argentine and other south American peoples and stress that this is a matter entirely for the islanders.

I welcome the overwhelming majority vote in favour of the Falklands remaining a British overseas territory. I suggest to my hon. Friend that that vote was in a way a reaffirmation of our position in Antarctica, and that it further underlines the importance and the peaceful nature of our activities in there.

Indeed, the 1959 Antarctic treaty froze all sovereignty claims there. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, whose private Member’s Bill, the Antarctic Bill, has passed through the House and is now law.

Many Argentines continue to work in the United Kingdom, and many British people work in Argentina. They are able to get along in a positive way. Perhaps the wisest words spoken in the past two weeks were those of one of the international electoral observers, who said:

“The Falkland Islanders are citizens and they have the right to express themselves.”

Those were the words not of a local, but of Senor Jaime Trobo, the Uruguayan electoral observer.

I suggest that now is a good time to evaluate from where the right to self-determination originates. The principle is set out unequivocally in article 1.2 of the charter of the United Nations, which states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on such an important subject on such an important day for the Falkland islanders. Does he also think that this is a good time for the United States of America to show that it understands democracy, and for President Obama to come out in support of the rights of the Falklanders, rather than sitting on the fence as he seems to have been doing?

While we would all support President Obama, he seems to be acquiring some splinters by sitting on the fence for so long. The United States’ position is surely hypocritical, given that it uses and benefits from bases in British overseas territories such as Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Ascension and Gibraltar when it suits them. Because it does not use the Falkland Islands for those purposes, however, it is not so supportive of, or enthusiastic about, our claims and those of the Falkland islanders.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. I agree that the United States is being hypocritical in its approach to recognising the Falkland Islands’ sovereignty. However, we also need to pay tribute to Washington for recently refusing to agree to any more International Monetary Fund or World Bank loans to Buenos Aires—as have the British Government—because of the way in which Argentina has massively defaulted on previous loans.

The status of the World Bank loans and the international aid that was or was not going to Argentina over the last few years is indeed a matter of great regret and concern.

Is not the Argentine President playing a cruel trick on her electorate by trying to divert attention from her own failings? There is not a chance in hell that the Falkland Islands will return to Argentina during her presidency, or any other presidency.

That was the problem in 1982, was it not? A President struggling to maintain domestic order was trying to divert attention from the realities of problems at home by attracting it to matters abroad. One is nervous about the potential for that to happen again.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Ewen Southby-Tailyour, who was very much a member of 3 Commando Brigade, did all the mapping around the Falklands in 1978, and that it could then be used by the troops when we went in? It was a very good job that he ended up doing.

Preparation is essential to all future military endeavour, as my hon. Friend rightly makes clear.

Under United Nations resolution 2065, which is linked with UN resolution 1514, it is crucial that the interests of the population of the Falkland Islands are observed. That has to be the most important consideration. Resolution 1514 states:

“All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development…All armed action or repressive measures of all kinds directed against dependent peoples shall cease...and the integrity of their national territory shall be respected.”

My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech about a very important subject. Does he agree that it is vital to the interests of the economic development of the Falkland Islands for there to be certainty about the sovereignty of those territories, so that businesses, including those in the fishing waters around the islands and those conducting oil exploration, can operate honestly for the foreseeable future in an atmosphere of security and good will?

The Foreign Secretary made the same point last year, when he wrote:

“There are many areas on which we”—

the two countries—

“can co-operate: on joint management of fish stocks, on hydrocarbon exploration and on strengthening air and sea links between the Falklands and South America. We used to do this in the 1990s and ought to be able to do it again.”

I am sure that the Falkland Islands Government want more trade links and a greater expansion of trade with their nearest neighbour.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There could be no more emphatic expression of the will of the Falkland Islands people than they have enunciated in the last 24 hours, and there can therefore be no doubt in the Argentine Government of the islanders’ determination to remain British. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we should now be seeking to appeal to the reasonable Argentines—many of whom have long-standing connections with this country, not least with the principality of Wales—and forging an alliance with them over the heads of the ridiculous Government of Argentina?

My hon. Friend makes his point most eloquently. I could not possibly improve on it. I will point out, however, that barely two weeks ago, before the referendum, Argentina’s Foreign Minister was saying that this was a

“British attempt to manipulate the Question of the Malvinas Islands through a vote by the population implanted by the United Kingdom”.

It is ridiculous to suggest that these people, some of whom have been there for nine generations, have been “implanted”. They are men and women who were born on the Falklands and have lived there for generations, had children, and made their lives together. Like the populations of most countries in Latin America, including Argentina, the Falklands population has grown through a flow of migration. The Falkland Islands constitutes a nation of immigrants who have developed a distinctive culture and identity. For Argentina to deny them the right to self-determination is for it to question the Argentines’ own claim to the rights that they take so seriously.

Is it not the case that Argentina, sadly, does not have a particularly happy history on respecting the freedoms of its own people and democracy there? Will my hon. Friend join me in criticising Argentina for its actions against cruise lines and the predilection it appears to have developed in recent months for obstructing the free passage of civilian passenger vessels that happen to have any business or trade with the Falkland Islands?

The reality is that a blockade of protectionism and intimidation is taking place around the Falkland Islands. We have seen actions ranging from preventing the use of the Falkland Islands flag and disrupting shipping, as my hon. Friend made clear, to ongoing organisational protectionism. Do we really, in 2013, have large countries blocking free trade in that way?

Given the state of Argentina’s finances and the insanity of its current financial situation, with inflation in excess of 25%, Argentina is hardly sending out any great lessons of financial propriety.

Order. May I just suggest that we have to be careful, as this debate is about the referendum and we are being dragged over other different subjects? I know that Mr Opperman wants to keep to the subject of the debate, so I ask hon. Members not to distract him—that would be helpful.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point in this debate. The people of the Falkland Islands have spoken and we must respect that. They should not feel intimidated, but if they do feel intimidated, the RAF, flying Typhoon aircraft built in west Lancashire, is more than capable of looking after their security.

Those aircraft will doubtless be backed up by some Sea King helicopters, a garrison of 1,200 soldiers, HMS Clyde and many other items under the water, not least a few submarines.

Let me deal with Europe and its role in determining this matter. I did not believe that the Lisbon treaty was good for much, but I was interested to read that it was good in that the European Union recognised the Falkland Islands as a “full associated territory”, like our other associated overseas territories, within part 4 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union. Apparently the Argentines are upset with something from Europe—I think they can join a large club, but I knew that the Lisbon treaty was good for something.

The Argentines continue to dispute this matter on an ongoing basis, but I suggest that they must now take into account the interests and desires of the Falkland Islands’ inhabitants. What has happened is applicable not only to the Falkland Islands, as it has due relevance to the other British overseas territories, including the 293,000 people who reside on a permanent basis in the 14 British overseas territories, all of whom will take great heart from what we have seen in the Falkland Islands today.

Relations with Argentina were not always so bad. In 1995, the Argentine and British Governments issued a joint statement when a deal was signed that identified a discrete area for hydrocarbon and other exploration, and work together. That agreement was scrapped in 2007 by the Argentine Government, which was a great shame. However, the facts are these: the inhabitants of the Falklands overwhelmingly want to remain a British overseas territory; it is not up to Great Britain to give the Falklands away; and it is the Falklands islanders’ own right to decide where their sovereignty lies.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is the right of the people of the Falklands to determine their own destiny, but does he agree that other countries around the world should now accept that the decision that has been made is the freely chosen wish of the people of those islands? I am talking about not just the United States of America, but all those countries that have sat on the fence and have failed to support the Falklanders’ desires to determine their own future.

I am happy to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has ploughed a strong but lonely furrow as the champion of the British overseas territories, all of which pay due credit to his work.

It is right that we are investing in the islands, moving positively forward and attempting to ensure that, building on the referendum, there is a celebration of the culture of the Falkland Islands and promotion of the fantastic opportunities there. The south American countries are our friends, as we would like Argentina to be.

In the year of the 31st anniversary of the campaign, surely we should recall the 255 men of Her Majesty’s armed forces who gave their lives for the security of the people of the Falkland Islands, including so many members of the Parachute Regiment based in my constituency of Aldershot.

We all remember those who passed away on all sides. For example, the Argentine troops were gentlemen led by lambs. They were chronically under-equipped and very poorly trained for the job their country asked them to do.

The people have spoken and the decision is now made. Gone are the days when colonial possessions could be disposed of by giving away power and territory regardless of the view of inhabitants. Let us instead celebrate the unique history and culture of a small island people who choose to remain British—and so they shall. That position and their choice in the matter are non-negotiable.

This has been a timely and useful debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on obtaining it and on his considered opening speech. I also thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions.

The Falkland islanders enjoy the support and friendship of Members from across the political divide in the British House of Commons. They will receive that message loud and clear as we debate this momentous day for the people of the Falkland Islands.

The referendum on the future of the Falkland Islands has been an event of momentous significance for that small community in the south Atlantic. An overwhelming majority, 99.8% of those voting, have chosen to retain the islands’ status as a British overseas territory, with an astonishingly high turnout—at which we can only look with jealousy, envy, amazement and, when it comes to our elections, incredulity—of 92%. Just three no votes were cast.

More than 50 international journalists have descended on Stanley. Those hon. Members who have visited Stanley, sometimes more than once, will know what pressure that has put on that place. They have been joined by academics, electoral experts and a formal observer mission made up of members from Latin America, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, who have confirmed that the poll was

“free and fair, reflecting the democratic will of the voters of the Falkland Islands.”

Does the Minister agree that that is a very important point? The Falkland islanders can now argue not only that the election was free and fair but that the result shows the will of the people.

My hon. Friend—I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should say the hon. Gentleman, although he is also my friend—has visited the Falklands and what he says is absolutely the case. The world was watching, the Falkland islanders spoke and the world should therefore react accordingly. These were free and fair elections, observed by the international community, and the result is stronger because of that.

Not for the first time, the Falkland islanders find themselves the focus of intense political and media attention. Most will now understandably want life to return to normal, but they can do so secure in the knowledge that they have shown the world in no uncertain terms what political status they want for their home. The result of course reflected what the Falkland islanders have always asserted: their overwhelming wish is to maintain the islands’ status as a British overseas territory. The referendum was not some crude public relations stunt, as the Argentine Government sought to portray it. The islanders organised it not to indulge themselves in establishing the obvious, but to send the clearest possible message to those who either do not know or do not care about what future they want. Today’s absolutely decisive result undoubtedly achieved that and once again I congratulate the Falkland Islands people on their definitive act of self-determination.

The British Government backed the referendum from the outset. Support for the Falkland islanders is absolute, and the Prime Minister made that very clear in his statement earlier today welcoming the result. The Government would have respected whatever result emerged from Stanley but, as is reinforced by the interventions this evening, we are delighted by the overwhelming support for a continuing partnership with the United Kingdom, based on our shared values and mutual respect. For as long as the people of the Falklands wish their homeland to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, we will stand by them.

Like everybody else in the House tonight, I am delighted with the result. It is not unexpected, but it sends a clear message. But for the sacrifices of our armed forces, the referendum could not have been held. Even today, many individuals still suffer from their physical and mental injuries. I am sure the Minister will give due praise to our armed forces for what they did, and to our armed forces serving there now.

As a former Armed Forces Minister, the hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). This is a time to remember all those who lost their life in the conflict, but particularly the British lives lost in re-securing freedom for the islanders.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge that the main factor that led the Falkland islanders to hold the referendum was the increasingly antagonistic behaviour of the Government of Argentina over recent months and years. In many ways President Kirchner herself inspired the referendum. Her aggressive policies motivated the Falkland islanders to stand up so proudly for who they are and what they want.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), I deeply regret the direction of Argentina’s policy. From harassing the Falklands fishing fleet, to threatening air links with the islands and issuing hostile letters to companies operating on the Falklands, it seems that the Argentine Government believe that the Falkland islanders can be bullied into submission, and that the British Government will eventually decide to negotiate away their rights. That is never going to happen.

Does the Minister agree that when relatives of Argentines killed in the Falklands visit the islands, they receive a very warm and respectful welcome from the people of the islands?

Indeed. It is my understanding that more than 20 nationalities took part in the referendum, including Argentines. That speaks volumes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the behaviour of Argentina that he has just particularised shows the arrogant colonial power that the Argentines attribute to others?

My hon. Friend makes his point extremely well. Even better is the comment of the Argentine columnist Andrés Oppenheimer, who wrote recently:

“Argentina’s latest offensive against the islanders may go down in history as a text-book example of diplomatic incompetence.”

The clarity with which the Falkland islanders have voiced their wishes compels Argentina to cease its destructive and counter-productive behaviour. It is simply not credible in the 21st century to pretend that the people living on the Falklands can be ignored, or that they do not exist, as Hector Timerman, the Argentine Foreign Minister, outrageously claimed on his recent trip to London. So I say to the Argentine Government, “Listen to what the islanders have said and put an end to your campaign of intimidation and bullying.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who is a stalwart champion of many things, but particularly of the British overseas territories, was right. As well as sending the clearest possible message to Argentina, the result of the referendum sends a message to the rest of the world. Neither the British Government nor the Falkland Islands Government wish to draw other countries into this issue. We respect those countries who express no opinion or who have honest disagreements with us on the matter, but what we cannot accept is other countries being misled into accepting a distorted picture of the Falklands issue.

The Argentine Government have claimed that the islanders do not exist, that the British military is holding them hostage as part of a wider policy to militarise the entire south Atlantic, and that they would be perfectly happy living under Argentine rule. None of these things is true. The islanders have known this all along, but the referendum has taken this message to a worldwide audience and has put the question of their wishes beyond any possible doubt. So we urge all countries who uphold democracy and political rights to respect the wishes of the islanders and to accept the referendum as a clear and valid expression of their views.

Some people will ask whether this referendum will change anything. I believe that it will. No longer will anyone be able to question whether or not the islanders want the Falklands to remain a British territory, and no longer will Argentina be able to distort the facts of the matter, misrepresenting and ignoring what the islanders want. Politicians from the islands will be travelling far and wide in the coming weeks to raise awareness of the result and to dispel myths about their home, and the British Government will be offering them every support and assistance in doing so. But the biggest change of all would be for the Argentine Government to recognise that their bullying tactics have failed—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).