Referendum update #7: Free, fair and transparent.

It has been a busy week for us. Three days of intense preparation followed by two days of voting and then one very long night.

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On the morning of Monday 11 March, we set off again into Camp. Our destination today was the settlement of Goose Green, which came to prominence during the 1982 conflict when over 100 Islanders were held captive in the community hall. Today, the community hall took on a different complexion – as a static polling station. The staff manning the ballot were expecting just a single voter who hadn’t cast their vote during the previous day’s voting. It was all rather surreal, but at the same time rather jolly, as we chatted with the polling staff, and took the time to look at the small museum dedicated to the 1982 hostilities.

Our day at Goose Green was cut short by a long standing commitment to meet the Governor, Nigel Haywood, in Stanley. This meant a 1.5 hour journey back along the unsealed roads that connect Goose Green with Mount Pleasant Airbase and Stanley. We drove directly to Government House, which is an impressive Victorian era building that dominates the old part of Stanley. The Governor and his staff made us feel very welcome and we enjoyed a productive and wide-ranging conversation that lasted well over an hour.

Such was the Governor’s hospitality that we then had to rush back to the hotel and prepare for the closure of the polls at 6pm and the official count scheduled to start at 8pm. Our status as accredited observers guaranteed front seat viewing at Stanley Town Hall. As ballot boxes were carried into the hall from all over the Islands, there was a considerable sense of anticipation not least from the gathered representatives of more than 60 media agencies including the BBC, Sky News, ITN, and the Daily Telegraph.

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The count started promptly at 8pm. It was a slow affair. Every ballot box was carefully emptied onto the counting table and then shown to the audience to have been properly emptied. It was easy to forget that there was never going to be more than 1600 votes at stake, particularly as we tipped into the third hour of counting. As one of the international observers commented, it would not be unusual in equivalent polls elsewhere for 40,000 votes to be counted during the same period of time. But this was no ordinary voting procedure. This referendum was billed as the most significant event in the history of the Falkland Islands since the 1982 conflict, and was being subject to considerable international scrutiny.

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We were part of that scrutiny process and stood over the shoulders of those officials discharging their duties. The announcement of 92% turnout brought a brought a cheer from the crowd. Then the news everyone had been waiting for – the result itself. The Chief Presiding Officer of the Referendum (and Chief Executive of the Falkland Islands), Keith Paggett, motioned towards the stage. As he did so, the media rushed to the front of the viewing area and followed his movements to the lectern. He revealed the following: to the question “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom? YES or NO”, 99.8% of the electorate had voted ‘YES’. There was laugher when it was announced that only 3 voters had dissented and voted ‘NO’ (by comparison to cheers that greeted the news of 1534 affirmative votes)

The final element to this hugely interesting drama came when the international monitoring mission confirmed that the referendum had been conducted in a free, fair and transparent fashion. The result, in their judgement, represented both the “free will” and “spirit” of Falkland Islanders. While these words have been used to confirm the validity of polls elsewhere around the world, in the context of the Falklands this statement was hugely significant. For a community who had never before been asked to articulate their own beliefs about their own future, the explicit recognition of their “spirit” was striking, more so given that the documentary evidence of that spirit (i.e. people’s ballots) had been recorded both for the community itself and watching audiences.

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Throughout the night, Islanders gathered at Arch Green to listen to commentary and the results broadcast live by the Falkland Islands Radio Service. As the result filtered through, the crowds began singing, cheering and eagerly waving Union and Falkland Islands flags. Cheers of ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.” were clearly audible. People spoke passionately about their desire to remain British. Distance from the UK was no obstacle to those we spoke with.

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We returned to our hotel well past midnight. Being accredited observers provided us with some wonderful opportunities to better understand not only the communities in the Falklands but also see the work of the international monitoring mission. We are immensely grateful for that. We are also grateful to the Shackleton Scholarship Fund for their generous support of our research.

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