This week Alasdair Pinkerton and Klaus Dodds will travel to the Falkland Islands to observe and research about the 2013 Falkland Islands referendum. As we pack our bags and prepare to leave for the Falklands via RAF Brize Norton, we will have no shortage of time to reflect on our up and coming research. The 18-hour flight will be routed via Ascension Island and after a short lay-over we will travel in a south westerly direction to Mount Pleasant Airbase (MPA), which is located some 30 miles to the west of Stanley. MPA remains the most visible element of the UK’s political and infrastructural investment in the defence of the Falkland Islands. We might even get a RAF Typhoon fighter escort as the plane descends towards MPA.
But we are here to reflect on a little piece of Falkland Islands history. Ever since the decision was announced that a referendum was going to be held in the Islands on March 10-11 2013, the Islands’ community has attracted a great deal of political and media interest. Over 40 media organizations will be represented in the Islands this week and many more will be commissioning pieces from visiting journalists and commentators. The rationale for holding a referendum is straight forward and noted in June 2012 by a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Gavin Short:
“We have thought carefully about how to convey a strong message to the outside world that expresses the views of the Falklands people in a clear, democratic and incontestable way. So we have decided, with the full support of the British Government, to hold a referendum on the Falkland Islands to eliminate any possible doubt about our wishes”.
Sending a ‘strong message’ became all the more important in the light of ongoing concerns that the Argentine president Christina Kirchner remains committed to pressurising both the Falkland Islands community (while refusing to recognise them as an element in the sovereignty dispute) and the UK government to negotiate over sovereignty. While sovereignty can indeed be a flexible resource (as our colleague Phil Steinberg noted in an earlier post), it also has a very immediate quality for many Islanders who will be mindful that robust communication links, trade/tourism and living resource management can never be taken for granted. Oil and gas licensing and exploration has added further spice to Argentine fears that the Falkland Islands community/UK government might never be forced to consider altering the status quo.
But, to be clear, this referendum is a political process that has been organised by the Falkland Islands Government. While the British government—which, under David Cameron, is perhaps the most robust on the Falklands issues since 1982—has promised to defend and respect the outcome, this event is very much one initiated and managed in Stanley.
The question to be posed to the voters is this one:
Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom? YES or NO
The result will not be a great surprise (we do expect a very high YES vote) but we will, over the next week, be reporting on local reactions, the actual result, and the remarkable efforts being made to ensure that voters are able to push their votes through the ballot box if they so wish. Longer term we should see the referendum for what it is – a powerful statement by a small community, increasingly able and willing, to fund, to mobilise and promote its message of continued connection to the UK as an overseas territory.
But one should also not under-estimate how far the Islands’ community has changed since 1982. We hope one thing all journalists will do when they are in the Islands is read the Falkland Islands Constitution (1985, 1997 and 2008 versions). If you want the real story of how the Falklands’ relationship with the UK has changed then start with these documents. Retaining ‘their current political status’ is one aspect of this referendum but the Falklands’ relationship with the UK is a work in progress and the 2008 version shows how far the Islands have come in 180 years.