Social media, including twitter, has a great deal to offer those eager to get their message out to followers and the wider twitter-sphere. At 140 characters maximum, there is only so much one can say in any particular tweet. But 140 characters is still more than enough when it comes to provoking reactions – good, bad, hostile, celebratory and the like. Geopolitical scholars have, as a consequence, been ever more interested in social media and its capacity to mobilise geographical representations of places and people.
The football pundit Stan Collymore (with over half a million twitter followers) created a bit of a twitter storm recently when he posted a tweet outlining his views about the Falkland Islands and by inference (perhaps) the 1982 conflict with Argentina, which cost 255 British lives and many more Argentines. As a well known former professional footballer and media presenter, Collymore’s tweet was bound to attract wider attention and seems to continue an association of sorts between football and the Falklands (albeit usually through the prism of high profile and controversial encounters between England and Argentina at various world cups). A version of the tweet itself is reproduced at the bottom of this blog piece (it has now been deleted from his twitter account).
Shortly after its appearance, the tweet in question generated on the whole a series of unflattering assessments of the former footballer with Falklands veterans and Falkland Islands Government (FIG) in particular registering their displeasure at what was perceived to a show of ‘disrespect’ for those British servicemen who lost their lives in May and June 1982. And in the aftermath of the 2013 Falkland Islands referendum, the FIG was also quick to point to the contemporary political and constitutional circumstances germane to the Islands community; in essence that the Islanders were able to self-determine their own futures.
Collymore was also accused of displaying historical ignorance regarding the British discovery, settlement and administration of the Falkland Islands. While the ‘settlement story’ is a complicated one as the French, English and Spanish place names on the Falklands map would seem to testify, a single tweet is probably not the easiest place to convey historical and topographic complexities. For Argentines, the Islands will always be the Islas Malvinas and as every Argentine citizen knows, ‘Las Malvinas son Argentinas’. The idea of ‘theft’ is one that would chime strongly with many Argentines who believe that the Islands (sometimes described as ‘the little lost sisters’) were stolen from a nascent Argentina in 1833. The Argentine scholar, Carlos Escude has been at the forefront of scholarship which has examined the relationship between the Malvinas and Argentine national identity politics.
My interest in this particular tweeting contretemps is neither with whether Mr Collymore was ‘ignorant’ of the history of the Falkland Islands nor whether he was ‘disrespectful’ to those who died in the 1982 South Atlantic conflict. Rather it was more to do with his description of the islands and its wooly inhabitants, the Falklands sheep. As the tweet suggested, the place in question was ‘A ****ing island with sheep’. There are around 500,000 sheep on the Islands, and a sheep features on the Falkland Islands coat of arms.
In 1982, as the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell captured (albeit satirically) through his cartoons a widely held view that the Falkland Islands were a poorly understood and physically distant wool producing colony that few in Britain could accurately locate on the map. As many as 650,000 sheep out-numbered a human population of around 1800 at the time of the Argentine invasion of April 1982. While Argentine commentators, including geopolitical and military authors, had long speculated on the offshore resource wealth of the islands (fish, oil and gas), this resource potential was not realised in the 1970s. By way of contrast, UK governments were planning an ever closer future with Argentina prior to 1982 and not thinking terribly hard about how to harness the maritime and subterranean potential of the Islands (notwithstanding the so-called 1976 Shackleton Report – which was updated after the 1982 conflict). The British decision to dispatch a task force in April 1982 to recover the Falklands was mobilised more by a desire to reverse the invasion itself as well as being mindful of what others such as the Soviet Union (in the midst of the so-called Second Cold War) might have made of any UK ‘indifference’ to the Argentine invasion of (disputed) British territories, both the Falklands and South Georgia. Both Conservative and Labour political figures spoke passionately about the need to protect the Islanders from this unwanted invasion, drawing parallels with earlier conflicts such as World War II.
The Islands themselves invited a mixed reaction from British servicemen and journalists involved in the fighting and reporting of the ensuing conflict. Some years ago, I wrote about how those geographical representations of the Islands were registered in contemporary reports and subsequent memoirs. The point about the Islands was that their material and imaginative characteristics always exceeded the simple notion that they were as Ronald Reagan thought nothing more than a ‘little ice-cold bunch of land down there’. They might have appeared bleak and wind swept in April and May 1982 but they were understood to represent something more fundamental. At times the much-lauded Anglo-American special relationship was tested precisely because the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought that the American president did not grasp the symbolic significance of these South Atlantic islands to the UK. Indeed, she tried to invoke a comparison with a ficitional invasion of Alaska by the Soviet Union during one of their telephone conversations in May 1982. Reagan reportedly did not accept the comparison but he ended up providing invaluable military and intelligence led support.
For both Argentina and Britain, before and after 1982, the islands were never just bits of territory with sheep on them. Argentine presidents continue to believe that the Islands are integral to the Republic, and the 1994 Constitution reiterates that commitment to recover them and other disputed islands such as South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. Britain, on the other hand, while it might have displayed ambivalence in the 1960s and 1970s, increasingly in the post-1982 context saw the Islands in a wider geopolitical context. The Falkland Islands were a strategic gateway to British Antarctic Territory and other South West Atlantic islands – and key players such as British Antarctic Survey enjoyed funding increases. After 1982, moreover, the British victory was alighted upon by the Thatcher government to argue that the ‘Great’ had been put back into ‘Great Britain’. As was widely debated at the time, the so-called ‘Falklands factor’ was credited by some as an essential ingredient to Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 general election victory and subsequent confidence when it came to confronting internal ‘enemies’, notably the National Union of Mineworkers.
While sheep continued to reside on the Islands, maritime and (the potential of) subterranean resources really transformed the Falkland Islands – the community itself and its relationship with the UK and beyond. A fishing licensing regime, established in the mid 1980s, injected a new revenue stream into the Falklands economy. New investment in schooling, infrastructure and the like in combination with a new military base at Mount Pleasant ensured that the Falklands became a well defended colony and later a so-called dependent and now overseas territory. Wool production continues but it was the fishing licensing monies that provided a step change for these Islands and its inhabitants. An island surrounded by fish (and in particular squid) might have been a more appropriate descriptor for Mr Collymore. Less evocative perhaps than sheep but the humble squid is worth millions of pounds every year. The tourist industry is also an important sector as well, and many of those visiting will visit the cemeteries and memorials associated with the 1982 conflict.
For now it is the squid rather than sheep that continues to generate the ‘big money’ but in the future it might well be oil and gas. There has been interest in hydrocarbons around the Islands for quite some time now and while the prospect of large scale production/exploitation remains a work in progress, Argentina has been incensed at the prospect of the residents of the Falklands becoming an oil-rich society. Time with tell. A ****ing island with sheep is one thing but a A ****ing island with oil is another prospect altogether. Just ask the Argentine President Christina Kirchner about that.
Finally, this tweeting spat reminds us that the struggle over the Falkland Islands is one increasingly conducted online. Argentine, British and Falkland Islanders all use social media such as twitter and Facebook to press their respective arguments and views. The Collymore tweet initiated a furore as seen through tweets involving #falklands and @StanCollymore but more generally #Falklands and #Malvinas are well used and the Argentine, British and Falkland Islands governments recognise the need for an active social media strategy. And this will continue regardless of whether Mr Collymore apologises or not.