As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war approaches, the latest oil rush has re-awakened tensions between the UK and Argentina. On Friday 10 February 2010, I was invited onto the Stephen Nolan Show on the BBC's excellent Radio 5 Live to discuss the islands with Jan Cheek. Jan is a member of the island's seven-strong Legislative Assembly. The islands are enjoying a boom, especially from Japanese demand for squid. Jan's late husband created the Fortuna fishing company, which Jan sold for £8 million according to the Daily Mail, spending 10 percent to create a penguin sanctuary. Fabers will shortly be publishing a new edition of my book Iron Britannia.
You can read the (lightly edited) transcript of our exchange below, or listen on BBC IPlayer here (9 minutes into the show).
Stephen Nolan (SN): The Honourable Jan Cheek (JC) is a member of the legislative assembly in the Falklands… Here in the UK Anthony Barnett (AB), author of Iron Britannia, critical of the Falklands war 30 years ago and Founder of openDemocracy.
SN: How do you read this one, Anthony? What do you think is going on here?
AB: I think it’s quite sad. The British and Argentina and the Falklands should come to an agreement. There should be negotiations. And I do think that the British government have been winding up the rhetoric in order to wind up the rhetoric in Buenos Aries. There’s a bit of politicking going on over here of trying to stimulate war fever, rather than saying okay [let’s settle]. The big issue, really, at stake here is the discovery of oil in the South Atlantic. The Argentinians have talked about the resources. They’ve said they don’t want to invade – they’ve said that explicitly – but there has to be a negotiation over the oil. That’s really what should happen, we should be approaching this in a sensible way and not trying to provoke them.
JC: Well, I’d have to take issue with several points there. In fact it’s been part of the ratcheting up of pressure by Argentina on the Islanders for a long time. You’ll be aware that there have been other things like the banning of Falklands flag vessels. The forces here are on routine deployment. They’re a deterrent, for the defence of our right to self-determination. I’m very disappointed that your other speaker doesn’t recognise that. If there is oil in the Falklands, and it appears there may well be but there is a lot more work that needs to be done, then like the natural resources of any overseas territories it belongs to the Falkland Islands. I feel that Argentina has been ratcheting up this pressure, as I said, for some years, mainly since the Kirchner government came into power, but of course the restarting of oil exploration two years ago heightened that. But people should remember that we did have an agreement for a joint cooperation area on oil exploration from which they unilaterally withdrew a few years ago.
SN: And of course the UK would say the Islands have been militarised ever since the invasion in 1982. They’re insisting that the defences remain unchanged.
JC: Yes, I mean there has been some phased replacement of outdated kit over the years but in fact there is less military equipment round now than there was for example in the ‘80s immediately after the war and anyone will tell you it is simply there as a deterrent to defend our rights.
SN: And the UN, Anthony, is appealing for calm. Are you worried that the situation might move beyond that?
AB: Well, I think the British government here would like to stimulate this issue. They think that it’s a great winner – it embarrasses everybody and it allows them to play a patriotic and military card, especially as they are going to have to be withdrawing from Afghanistan in what appears to be quite a significant military defeat. So there is quite a lot of politics here. The issue of the Islanders self-determination – the UN [Charter] is actually quite clear but anyway I think in human terms it is quite clear – the Islanders have definite interests which we have a duty, Britain as the power out there has a duty to protect. But their wishes can’t unilaterally decide the outcome [of any negotiation] and we should make it clear from the get-go that we want to reach a negotiated agreement over any resources, such as oil, with Argentina. It’s quite unacceptable for the councillor to say if there is oil there as a British dependency it completely belongs to us, as if we in Britain can be in control of the oil of the South Atlantic. We shouldn’t have anything to do with this. It is nonsense.
JC: I would like to point out that some of us have lived here, or our families have, for 170 years. You know, we are the residents of the Falklands, we are the people of the Falklands and to reduce this to simply an argument between Britain and Argentina is totally disregarding and ignoring that.
AB: I’m not doing that. With all respect, I’m not "totally disregarding." I said the interests of the Falkland Islanders are obviously a very important fact and they are much more important after the criminal invasion by Argentina in 1982. But there were 600 families in the Falklands and so to talk about the Falklands as if they are ‘a people’, as if they are “an island race” as Mrs Thatcher called it – this is a small company settlement. I greatly respect the fact that one or two of the families have been there for a long time. Of course they have interests. But they don’t have the right to billions of pounds worth of oil when the Islands have also been claimed, perpetually since we threw them off in 1833, by Argentina. So there is a natural disputed area of sovereignty there. The Islanders’ interests have got to be considered and safeguarded but they can’t simply arbitrate the outcome.
JC: The Islands have been settled for as long as countries like New Zealand. And as far as I know there’s no limitation on numbers…
AB: I’m sorry but you’re not a nation. You’re 600 families. This is over 4,000 square miles. It is a company settlement. If you were New Zealand or Scotland – or Grenada, which has 90,000 inhabitants - you’d have the right to self-determination as an independent nation. But you’re not an independent nation. You’re a small settlement and a dependency on Britain and if you want Britain to spend lots of money and you know, 300 British families, and probably if you take the wounded 600-700 British families, have had their lives ruined in this war, not to speak of many Argentineans. You don’t have the right to demand that of us if we can reach a perfectly reasonable settlement with Argentina over the oil, which I am sure we can.
SN: Okay, we’ve got to leave it there and we’ll take calls later on.
Special thanks to Andrew Hyde