Solemn remembrance is an excellent opportunity to seal old wounds. The Queen of England smiled gamely as she recently shook the hand of one of the men who led the Irish Republican Army on a 30-year armed campaign against the British State. Every time that the European Union trembles with fright at the pirouettes of its common currency, it recollects the back catalogue of continental wars, and finds in them a very good reason to reassert the goal of unification and open German bank vaults just that bit wider.
It is remarkable, then, that in the case of the islands which Argentine media decorum insists we call the Malvinas, there has been no quiver of forgiveness or togetherness. From the start of this year’s anniversary season, the thirtieth since the war, the conflict has been positioned as an unresolved grudge and grounds for trepidation. Like contestants chasing each other through the caverns of a reality gameshow, the governments of both sides, along with the islanders, have sought to score points and pout with hurt feelings. The anniversary formally ended on June 14, a day which saw Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reiterate the Argentine demand for a “dialogue” over sovereignty before the UN Decolonization Committee. Her encounter a week later with David Cameron in the recesses of the G20 conference suite had all the trappings of an awkward moment in an airport business lounge: pleasantries were exchanged over international banking, disagreements were expressed over prime South Atlantic real estate, and a brown envelope full of broken contracts ended up in the bin.
Throughout, a simple game of verbal equivalences and binary opposites has spoiled all hope of a serious conversation. Argentina demands national and popular justice, while Britain insists on the rights of people. British defence is aggression, Argentine dialogue is submission. A kind gesture is either a lie, a trick, or impossible. If definitive confirmation were needed that the two sides of this dispute — or three, if we distinguish the islanders from the British government — have their feet sunk deep in clay, it was on show at the UN.
The issue at stake was perhaps the sole surprise note in Argentina’s anniversary diplomacy. Hustling in the UN, playing diplomatic tag across Latin America, and squeezing British trade through the offices of Guillermo Moreno have had their day. But President Fernández de Kirchner also offered an air link direct from Buenos Aires, which might in principle contribute to the islands’ food provisions and tourism.
A Dousing of Cold Water
Although not entirely dismissing talk of the link, the islands’ authorities doused it in cold water. “The proposals set out in the (Argentine) Ambassador’s letter are made not with a context of amity and friendship towards the Falklands Islands people, but against a backdrop of increasing hostility,” the islands’ government wrote to Britain’s Foreign Office. The letter then referred to a recent Argentine advert for the Olympic Games, showing “an athlete training on our war memorial”, as evidence for “the contempt which the current government of Argentine has for our rights as people.”
These are strong words. And it is with a keen sense of how easy it is to stir the islanders’ grievance that I repeat them. Close to the time of Cristina’s speech to the UN, I was interviewed about the conflict by an amiable journalist working in London for Argentina’s state news agency, Telam. Among other things, including a small diversion about Sergio Agüero’s influence at Manchester City, I loosely speculated that a negotiation on some form of mutually agreed administration or shared sovereignty would, in all likelihood, come about. Mostly likely in the long run.
I don’t expect these qualifications will save me from the wrath of a number of bloggers, nor of someone who suggested in an email that my involvement with the Buenos Aires Herald and, much worse, my “likely contact with Argentines”, had “destroyed any claim that you might have to impartial comment.”
Nevertheless, the remark I made stems from a simple observation of geographic and financial reality, married with the fact that my family, which was once scattered in corners of the British Empire, eventually washed back to damp native shores. As Anthony Barnett has argued in the new version of his book on the effect of the Malvinas war on British politics, Iron Britannia, London has played fast and reckless games with its colonies, and has respected self-determination only when politically convenient.
“The Falklands Syndrome,” Barnett argues, is distinct, a transformation brought about by the war that reconstituted British politics, driving a steely style of leadership, a military propaganda machine and a vogue for sentimental nationalism. The islands are a potent symbol, and are used as such. The British military, he writes, “understand, as the public does not, that we do not have today’s Navy with its global reach in order to defend the Falklands. We retain the Falklands in order to hang on to a global navy.”
So long as the symbolic parade is present on both sides, and is stirred up by British nationalists, vocal islanders and Argentine presidents, reason and moderation will remain in short supply. It is fortunate, then, that another reader, who wishes to remain nameless due to his links with the islands, emailed me with an account of the different modes in which sovereignty, government and the law can be reshaped, divvied out and shared, from the Aland Islands of Finland, to “independent” Andorra. Perhaps that interesting file of harmonic solutions will one day be taken from the shelf, once the syndromes of war have passed.
Cross-posted with thanks from the Buenos Aires Herald