An Option For The Falklands
After a few years of quiescence the question of the future of the Falkland Islands has now come to the fore once again. On his current visit to the islands Mr Nicholas Ridley, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, has put forward a number of options; and because one of them involves the transfer of sovereignty to Argentina - though the islands would simultaneously be leased back to Britain - it is bound to cause a stir. This is all to the good. The Falklands are one of those difficult issues that have hung fire for many years and, while there can be no easy solution, it is healthy that their future should be openly discussed. The various possibilities, however unpalatable they may be to many people, have at least to be examined.
The starting point must be the principle, restated by Lord Carrington this week, that nothing will be done against the wishes of the islanders themselves. They are a small and isolated community, of almost entirely British origin, and there can be no question of simply handing them over to Argentina against their will. This would be true whatever the type of government that held office in Argentina, and is particularly true in view of the bloodstained record of the present military regime, itself the product of extraordinary political instability over many years.
On the other hand the status quo, in which the islands are in a kind of limbo, unable to take full advantage of their economic potential and constantly facing the threat of some kind of pressure from their large neighbour, is also unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory for the islanders themselves, with their declining economy; and it is unsatisfactory for Britain, which not only finds their support a financial drain but is prevented by the continuing dispute from developing its relations with Argentina as fully as it might. There can be no question of abandoning a small community in the South Atlantic. But it is legitimate to look for ways of settling the dispute which would be acceptable to all and allow them to develop the resources of the region.
One of the factors in the situation is the sheer predominance of Argentina in Falklands affairs. Apart from a ship which sails from Tilbury for the Falklands four times a year the only regular communications with the outside world are through a limited air service run by the Argentine Air Force. In recent. years the Argentines have abstained from threatening gestures and have, sensibly, presented a pleasanter face to the islanders. This is the only way for them to win their good will.
The advantage of the lease-back option outlined by Mr Ridley - similar to that of Hong-kong's new territories -was that it nominally meets the Argentine requirement on sovereignty, while leaving the islanders to maintain their own pattern of life. It would provide the basis for agreements on oil exploration and fisheries, which would help the Falkland economy, as would the development of tourism. In the last analysis, however, the islanders themselves would have to be convinced that they wanted it and that there were proper safeguards. This should be achieved through the merits of the idea, not through coercion.