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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 23:29 GMT 00:29 UK
Falklands: Has anything changed?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News

Red telephone box on the Falklands
The islanders are determined to remain British in character
Twenty-five years on, the Argentines have not forgotten and the British have not forgiven.

The Falklands will remain an irritant in relations for the indefinite future.

The fundamentals have not changed.

Argentina claims the islands on the basis that its colony there in 1833 was thrown out by the British and that the population there today should have their say but not take the decision.

Britain argues that, whatever the arguments about the past, continuous possession for so long and the modern concept of self-determination give it a right to stay.

Geography is not relevant, it says. Other islands are owned by faraway countries, like the French islands of St Pierre et Miquelon, a little piece of Normandy right off the coast of Newfoundland.

What has changed is the emergence of a peaceful strategy by Argentina following the demise of the military dictatorship, a by-product of its failure to hold the islands.

This peaceful strategy, however, has almost no chance of success.

Say on sovereignty

The Falklands have developed economically since 1982, largely on the income from fish (mainly squid) licensing. The population has prospered and even increased.

It was in no mood to change attitudes towards Argentina before the 1982 war, when Britain floated the idea of a leaseback. It is even less inclined to change now.

The islands are doing well and are well protected by the British forces and taxpayers.

And above all, the British government has given the islanders the first and last, indeed the only, say on sovereignty.

Port Stanley in 1982 and today
Then and now: Tourists walk where soldiers once marched

Technically, Britain is ready to discuss sovereignty but only when the islanders say so, and that will be never, as things stand.

The Foreign Office said: "The UK firmly believes that the Falkland Islands have the right of self-determination and will not negotiate on sovereignty unless and until the islanders wish us to do so."

To make its point that this is an unresolved historical issue, the Argentine government announced in advance of the anniversary that it was withdrawing from a 1995 agreement to co-operate with Britain on oil exploration to the west of the Falklands.

To stress that the claim on the islands remains, the Argentine ambassador in London Frederico Mirre said: " The question of the Malvinas is neither over nor solved.

"Argentina and the United Kingdom have a sovereignty dispute, and it is through diplomatic negotiations that we must, together, find a solution."

However, there are no negotiations and none in prospect, so the impasse continues.

Warning signs

The Argentine invasion came out of the blue. Both the British government and media should have foreseen it.

No war is gentlemanly but this was more gentlemanly than many

A military dictatorship in trouble at home and with a tempting target not far away should not have been ignored.

One voice of warning of trouble ahead was the then BBC correspondent in Buenos Aires, Harold Briley.

He had said the breakdown of talks between Britain and Argentina in January that year was serious.

Nobody listened.

So suddenly, on the evening of 2 April, with US networks announcing with some disbelief that some "barren rocks" had been invaded, I found myself on an Aerolineas Argentinas flight from New York down to Buenos Aires.

I and a couple of other British reporters on board were invited up to the flight deck where the captain remarked he was sorry about the dispute which he hoped could be solved in a "gentlemanly" fashion. We all shook hands.

No war is gentlemanly but this was more gentlemanly than many.

Colonel Charles Garraway, formerly of the British Army Legal Services Directorate, told me recently enough had been done by both sides (for example, an agreement through the Red Cross to protect British hospital ships) that subsequent co-operation in UN peacekeeping operations had been "no problem."

Iron Lady's reputation

In Buenos Aires, the people seemed curiously detached from the war. They had had no say in the formation of the government and while all agreed the Malvinas belonged to Argentina, they seemed to accept that the British would prevail.

The British prevailed because of Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands in 1983
The outbreak of the war bolstered Mrs Thatcher's government
Throughout the weeks that preceded the British landing, there were various attempts to patch up a solution.

They all foundered because the Argentines wanted sovereignty guaranteed at the end of the process (even if in 99 years or so like Hong Kong) and Mrs Thatcher absolutely refused.

Whenever I felt that talks might have some traction, I got the BBC to feed prime minister's questions in the House of Commons down the phone. That voice told me not to put any faith in the diplomacy.

The war transformed her uncertain start in government three years earlier and set her up for re-election and a reputation as the Iron Lady, though in Buenos Aires they called her a pirate.

What was also cemented was her relationship with Ronald Reagan.

The United States had dithered at the start of the crisis. The Secretary of State Al Haig came down to Buenos Aires to try to broker a deal, though he appeared awkward in his effort to be even-handed.

Some elements in the administration, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the UN, even favoured the Argentines.

But others, notably Caspar Weinberger at the defence department, did not. He swung behind Britain and sent the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles that did so much damage to the intrepid Argentine air force.

Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan then marched into history together.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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