HC Deb 26 March 1968 vol 761 cc1446-67

6.44 a.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I would like to add my good wishes for the speedy recovery of Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving), and express my gratitude to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for taking over so quickly at this unexpected hour.

I wish to raise the question of the future of the Falkland Islands and the Falkland Island Dependencies. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations for being here. I am concerned about this matter because of answers received in this House and in another place in recent weeks. These answers have been unsatisfactory. There are two Motions on the Order Paper. One is No. 203 in my name and the other is No. 206 in the name of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger).

Hon. Members will know that for some time there have been negotiations going on between Britain and Argentina about the Falklands as a result of Resolution 2065/20 in the United Nations General Assembly on 16th December, 1965. I doubt whether the resolution was legal, as the question of sovereignty is involved. It seems to be contrary to Article 2(7) the U.N. Charter.

However, many other factors are involved. The first landing in the Falklands was in 1690 by Captain Strong, who gave the islands their name after Viscount Falkland, Treasurer of the Navy. A settlement was established in the West Island in 1766, but in 1774 the British Government withdrew it on grounds of economy. Our claim to sovereignty was maintained and a leaden plaque was left declaring the Falklands to be the sole right and property of King George III. Since 1832 the islands have been under British control, continuous, open and effective. Although protests from Argentina have been received from time to time, they have been somewhat intermittent. There is no doubt in my mind that in international law the Islands are British. There is a de facto right by virtue of occupation, and then by virtue of time and the law it was clearly de jure. Nearly all the countries in the world recognise this, including the United States.

It is particularly significant that in 1947 the British Government offered to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice. A similar move was made in 1955, but both Argentina and Chile declined to submit their case. The reason is that it is very poor. It is also worth noting that in the Special Committee of the United Nations, which sat in 1965, little or no reference was made to the principle of self-determination or the wishes of the people of the Falklands. There is no question that the people of the islands do not desire a change, and they wish to strengthen their relations with Britain. Anybody who doubts that would do well to read the petitions of the elected members of the Falkland Islands, the chairman of Stanley Town Council, the General Secretary of the Falklands Labour Federation, and many other individual petitions to the United Nations. It is very odd that all those petitions were neglected, and it says little for the wisdom and judgment of the U.N. Committee of 24 on Colonial Questions.

In 1965 Lord Caradon said at the United Nations that the people of the Falklands would not be betrayed or bartered. Their wishes and interests were paramount and we should do our duty to protect them. That was a very admirable statement, but what is the position today? Doubt has been cast on the matter because of two events. First, several hon. Members, including myself, have received a letter dated 27th February, 1968, from the unofficial members of the Falklands Executive Council. The letter expresses grave anxiety about the negotiations and reiterates the wish of the Falklands to remain British and keep their connection with us. On receipt of this letter, an unusual one in my political experience and my colonial service experience, I questioned the Minister of State about the negotiations. That will be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 18th March, 1968. The Minister of State replied: The negotiations are continuing and are confidential. In these negotiations, Her Majesty's Government are being guided by strong regard for the interests of the people of the Falkland Islands, and in any event will see that there is the fullest consultation with them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1968; Vol. 760, c. 14.] That is not very satisfactory and is far from the strong and proper words of Lord Caradon. Further oral questioning on 18th March elicited nothing definite and the Minister of State was evasive about "consultation" and "consent", when the transfer of sovereignty was raised. He would not say that the consent of the local people to any transfer would be required. I cannot understand the Government's attitude on this matter, or why they are not more specific and frank to the House. International law is on their side, the wishes of the people are clear. They are of Scottish or English descent, some even to the sixth generation. Most of the 2,100 inhabitants were born there. In their country, their is no crime, no debt and no unemployment. They contributed handsomely to Britain in the last world war.

I ask the Government to cease this shilly-shallying and to state three things definitely. First, will they say that there will be no transfer of sovereignty or sharing of sovereignty without consultation and consent, clearly expressed by the islanders and originating with them? Secondly, will they say that there are no secret deals involving either meat or shipping waters, and thirdly, will the Government report to the United Nations that they are not prepared to entertain any further negotiations on the Falkland Islands, or their future, with the Argentine or any other country? Will they undertake to give complete protection, physical if necessary, to the islands and their inhabitants?

6.52 a.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

I hope the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) will excuse me if I do not follow him in dealing with the historical role of the Falkland Islands. I want to deal with two major points.

It is not fair for these islands to be continually in a state of apprehension as to their future. This has been their condition over the last two or three years, because they have been very uncertain, and still are, as to what will occur. This arises mainly from two causes. First is the desire of the United Nations that Britain and the Argentine should have discussions about the future of these islands. These discussions are confidential. No one outside knows what is taking place. When such discusisons take place, all kinds of rumours arise which are neither denied or confirmed. It is said in many quarters that the Government are negotiating a transfer of the Islands to the Argentine. This is firmly in the minds of the islanders, and I would like my right hon. Friend to give an assurance that will satisfy them once and for all that they are going to remain under the British flag.

Another reason for their apprehension is that, in 1966, a plane was hi-jacked and landed on the Falkland Islands. The islanders were totally unaware of its coming until it was landed by its very skilful pilot on the bumpy race course. His skill avoided what could have been a major disaster. It was a remarkable landing. Islanders went up to see what had happened, assuming that the aircraft had landed because of some fault or shortage of fuel, for example. Two Falkland Islands officials were approaching the aircraft when out of it came armed men, who took them prisoner. One cart understand the apprehensions of the people at such an incident. The officials were held prisoner for two or three days.

Finally, the men on the plane—about 20 of them—had to give themselves up and they were taken by a priest to the Roman Catholic school and kept there until the Argentine authorities came for them. All of these men were armed. The people of the islands should be guarded against this sort of thing, and that is why I feel that the Government, taking these two points I have mentioned into consideration, should make a definite statement that the islands will remain under the British Crown.

The U.N. Charter affirms that every nation shall have the right of self-determination, and every British Colony which has been granted independence has had that right. If they desired, they could vote on it. Every British Colony has had the ability to state its desires and have them made public. The Islanders desire nothing more than what has been granted to every other Colony, the right to express their feelings, wishes and desires on this matter.

As this is a principle of the United Nations they have the right to the support of that body. It is no use carrying on any longer in this uncertain way. Over the last two years these rumours have disturbed the islanders very much, I and the hon. Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne) visited the islands twelve months ago, and we found that where-ever we went this was the prominent topic. Everyone asked us what the British Government intended to do, whether in Port Stanley, Port Darwin, East Island or West Island, and even on the farm camps right out on the moors. The uncertainty is worrying them. When their whole living is concerned, one can understand their feelings, and it is time the British Government gave a definite assurance that will satisfy the islanders that their future will be secure.

7.3 a.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

The House has listened to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) with great interest and respect, because he speaks with the authority of an hon. Member who has just recently visited the Falkland Islands, with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne). He dwelt on the apprehensions of the people there, particularly since the extraordinary incident he has described. I would like to ask whether the Government here are satisfied that the Islands and their dependencies are being adequately safeguarded.

I understand that H.M.S. "Protector" is no longer in the area. What vessel or what arrangements are replacing her? I am sure that the Royal Marine detachment is more than adequate, but would it be desirable to reinforce it? These thoughts will be in the minds of right hon. Gentlemen. I hope and feel with some confidence that the training of the local population to defend themselves, their homes and their farms is going well.

The House is very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) for initiating this debate. No one who has sought to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, has a direct interest in the Falkland Islands, but every hon. Member has an interest in the safety and welfare of our fellow subjects, wherever they may be.

I also feel confident that this debate is being conducted in a spirit of good will towards the Argentine with whom we have so many ties of history and honourable obligation, but it would be false to conceal the clear fact, which was brought out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South, that no other state has any valid title to the Falkland Islands. I do not wish to put ideas into the head of General de Gaulle, but the French might well say that they have a prior claim to that of the Spaniards which the Argentine claims to inherit, because de Bougainville landed on what the French called Les Malouines in 1764, and that was before any Spanish presence in the Falkland Islands. But if the Argentine claims the Falkland Islands as a successor to the Spanish empire, if Spanish imperialism is so legitimate, so is that of Great Britain. The important fact—at least, to someone like myself who is not learned in the law—is that Britain has been in effective occupation since 1833.

Mention has been made of these confidential negotiations that we understand are going on. From another place we received no clear impression whether sovereignty has been discussed. I should like to know whether sovereignty has been discussed.

We are all glad to see the right hon. Gentleman with us this morning as Foreign Secretary, and we wish him well in all that he does in the public interest. In his previous incarnation at the Foreign Office the righ thon. Gentleman said on 14th January, 1966 that Britain did not recognise Argentine sovereignty in the South Atlantic archipelago. That speech was made in Buenos Aires.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South, quoted the fine words of Lord Caradon, and it is a pleasure for me to be able to compliment Lord Cara-don on something that he has said at the United Nations. I am not going to repeat the words which have been quoted by my hon. Friend, but I should like to add to what has been placed on the record one other sentence from Lord Caradon's speech on 1st December, 1965 at the General Assembly of the United Nations. He said: There can be no question of negotiating the issue of sovereignty and signing away the destinies of whole peoples over their heads. When the right hon. Gentleman comes to reply he may say "This is all much ado about nothing. Why is such a fuss being made? After all, you do not know that anything untoward is afoot." But, as the hon. Member for Chorley pointed out, the Falkland Islanders have every reason for concern, and so have we. It is significant when The Times in a leader of 15th March refers to … a Government contemplating a wholly pointless abandonment of people who belong to them and who have trusted them. The Governor of the Falkland Islands—who is deeply respected by the people there—has been unable, after visits to London, to reassure the people, and Her Majesty's Government have so far been quite unable to reassure the House and the country. I do not like the sound of such words as "delicate, confidential negotiations", and when the words "twin principles of consultation and consent" are used, I ask the right hon. Gentleman what consultation there has been with anyone in the Falkland Islands before these confidential talks began.

I do not wish to delay the House any further. Here are 2,000 islanders, perhaps four-fifths of them British and many of them British of settler descent. They are as much a British community as are the people whom I represent in Essex. They live in harmony. There are no racial or religious conflicts in the Falkland Islands. They have achieved high standards of life and welfare—and at no cost to the British taxpayer. Would that that might be said of some other territories. Indeed, they have made contributions to the Exchequer and, what is more important—as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South remarked—they have given devoted service to Britain and the Commonwealth in war. One might say that the Falkland Islands are a credit to the British Commonwealth.

Is all this to be undermined, and even thrown away? The United Nations has been brought in. I do not expect that the Foreign Secretary will agree, but I fully endorse what my hon. Friend has said about Paragraph 7 of Article 2 precluding the intervention of the United Nations. I know that that position has been eroded, and I shall not argue that point for the moment, but I shall argue the case of the Falkland Islands people for self-determination. Are they to be denied self-determination? Are they to be treated like the people of Dutch West New Guinea who, to the shame of the United Nations and the major powers, were handed to a new colonial master?

While the present Government have been in office many of our friends in distant parts of the world have been abandoned and betrayed, but I do not believe that even Her Majesty's present advisers can let the Falkland Islands down. Let the Queen's Ministers do their duty by the Queen's subjects.

7.13 a.m.

Mr. John Smith (Cities of London and Westminster)

I have no direct interest in the Falkland Islands and my constituency is probably more unlike the Falkland Islands than any other part of this country. Westminster represents the centre of the Commonwealth and the Falkland Islands represent its furthest edge. But the mere possibility that these islanders, should be bartered away to gratify another Government fills me with indignation and shame and I have sat here until a quarter past Seven this morning in order to say so.

We have always had good relations with Argentina, and many people from this country have helped in the making of the Argentine nation. Our connections and friendship with the Argentine have been and should be of the strongest, but they cannot be based on dishonourable action. To be more practical, it is true that we hope to do substantial trade with Argentina, and we have substantial investments there; but if people see that we are base enough to compromise our honour in the hope of saving our money they will have less compunction in taking our money as well, and we shall end up by losing both.

Surely there comes a point where we must stop letting people down. Surely, in the hope of gain to make these islands a new, unwilling colony of Argentina—which has no claim to them and with which they have nothing in common—whether of law, language, custom, culture or trade, is too much for any Government of this country. I hope that the Minister will give a clear undertaking that the United Nations principle of self-determination will be applied to these Islands, and that if they then wish to remain under our protection we will protect them permanently.

7.15 a.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) has performed a great service tonight in bringing this matter before the House, and he has been supported by unusually strong speeches from both sides. There has, of course, been acute anxiety—I think the Minister is well aware of this—both in this House and in the country ever since the information was wrung out of the Government that they were engaged in secret negotiations with the Argentine Government over the future of the Falkland Islands. There has been anxiety here, and there has been anxiety in the islands themselves.

At the beginning of March, in company with my hon. Friend, I received a letter from the four unofficial members of the Falkland Islands Executive Council, asking me if I was aware that negotiations are now proceeding between the British and Argentine Governments which may result at any moment in the handing over of the Falkland Islands to the Argentine". I was asked to take note that the inhabitants of the islands have never yet been consulted regarding their future; that they do not want to become Argentines; that they are as British as you are"; and that they are mostly of English and Scottish ancestry, even to the sixth generation". That was the first news that I had that any such negotiations were afoot.

A few days after that I received information from the Falklands confirming the existence of the rumours to which the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) made reference, and suggesting that the British Government had been putting a subtle and indirect pressure upon the islanders to accept transfer of sovereignty to the Argentine. As this letter names certain residents in the islands and certain visitors to the islands, some of them British, some of them non-British, I shall not read it to the House; we are dealing here with a small community. However, I would ask the Foreign Secretary to accept from me that the letter left me in no doubt as to the feeling of deep anxiety in the islands, and a sense of bewilderment and even of anger that any British Government should be treating them in this way.

It may be that when the Foreign Secretary replies to the debate he will say that there is no real substance in all this, but in a situation of this kind it is not always the facts that matter: it is what people believe the facts to be. There can be no doubt, after what has been said in this House tonight, and from the communications we have received from the Islands, that people believe that grounds for anxiety exist.

Indeed, when the matter was raised in another place on 13th March the evasive answers of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont served only to heighten the anxiety already felt. We were told then that nothing could be said about confidential talks proceeding between the British and Argentine Governments, but that whatever was decided the principles of consultation and consent would be applied. Since we know that the Falkland Islanders are British, since we know that they wish to remain British, and since we know that they have publicly declared to the United Nations itself their wish to remain British, what are these confidential talks about? If sovereignty is not being discussed, what is? If, on the other hand, sovereignty is being discussed, why have the people and their representatives not been consulted? Why has the Governor's Executive Council been kept in the dark?

One member of the Council told hon. Members of this House early last night: We have been kept in complete ignorance as to what is going on. Yet these are the people who are responsible to their own folk in the Islands. These are the Governor's advisers. The Council is the representative body of the islands. He added very firmly: We are British, and we intend to remain so. If the Government are not preparing to sell our fellow Britons down the river, why then were their leaders not reassured? Why was the Governor not empowered to inform his Executive Council and to speak to this small community and allay their anxieties? Would it not have strengthened our negotiators if they had been able to say to our Argentine friends that the Falkland Islanders do not wish to become Argentines?

If, as I understand it, the negotiations are taking place in pursuance of Resolution 2065 of the United Nations General Assembly, which called upon the two Governments to find a peaceful solution to the problem, in what way would the openly expressed views of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands be in conflict with that Resolution? That is what puzzles the House, and it is what puzzles the Falkland Islanders. Does not Article 73 of the Charter of the United Nations make it plain that the interests of the people of a colonial territory are paramount and that their political aspirations must be respected? We know the political aspirations of the Falkland Islanders. They have made them quite plain.

Yet they have not been consulted about this. I hope that we shall hear some good news from the Foreign Secretary. I take heart from his presence. We all respect him. The attendance of a senior minister is a somewhat unusual step in these debates and, if I may say so, a mark of the importance of the subject. I must say to him, however, that it is really unforgiveable for the British Government to indulge in secret talks about the future of these wholly British people without their knowledge and approval.

The impression seems to be widespread in the Argentine that we shall capitulate. I understand that leading newspapers there have said that sovereignty is indeed the nub of the secret talks and that acceptance of this is a victory for Argentine diplomacy. There was a letter in Monday's Times from the distinguished naturalist Mr. Peter Scott, who returned from the Falkland Islands recently, passing through Buenos Aires on the way. He wrote: '… in Buenos Aires I found a general impression that any minute now the Islas Malvinas, as they call them, would be a part of Argentina. So we are dealing not solely with the doubts, fears and anxieties in the Falkland Islands, but with the hopes, aspirations and beliefs of the Argentines themselves.

Who has given them that impression? Who has led them up the garden? I choose my words carefully at this point I am a Commonwealth man and so are all those who have spoken in this debate. If this is a case of the Foreign Office overruling the Commonwealth Office, heaven help our Commonwealth interests when the merger of the two Departments takes place.

One can understand the desire of Her Majesty's Government to have good relations with the Argentine. As one of my hon. Friends said, there is a long tradition of friendship between our two countries. I would be the last to wish that friendship to be sundered.

Even so, if we learn anything from history it is that we do not earn respect by flabbiness, by weakness, or by pretending that the other side have a case when we know that they have not. The Argentines argue that their claim is based on the fact that Spain owned the Falkland Islands some 200 years ago. As The Times said recently, if the Spanish Imperium was legitimate, then so is the British Imperium that succeeded it. They claim that the islands are theirs on the grounds of proximity. They are 250 miles away. 'The claim has no basis in truth or in fact.

But all this is to completely miss the point. We are not talking of a group of barren rocks off the mainland of South America or even of a desirable property. We are concerned with a small people of British stock whose forefathers colonised empty land. They did not drive anybody out. They came there, they worked hard, and they have never cost this country a penny. I remember meeting a handful of then- during the war. They came across the 8,000 miles of ocean, the grandsons and great grandsons of men who had gone out there, because their Motherland was in danger. I remember these things. Those of us who are Commonwealth men will always remember them. We are concerned here with a small people who are British through and through. It is people we are talking about—people of our own blood and bone, whose feelings and aspirations should be just as much the concern of this House as those of the people of the Outer Hebrides or of the Isle of Wight.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Chorley speaks with great authority, because he has recently been in the islands, but what all of us are saying is that the Falkland Islanders are not to be betrayed. The Government must understand that and must act accordingly. The uncertainty over their future, which has been caused by the Government's evasiveness, must be ended. I trust that when the Foreign Secretary replies he will be able to tell us that in clear and unmistakable terms.

There are two things which we must know. First, that there will be no transfer of sovereignty under any circumstances without the openly expressed wish of the people of the islands, and, secondly, that the islands will be protected against any threat to their security, from whatever quarter it may come.

7.28 a.m.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) was right in saying that I thought it right to take part in the debate in view of the importance of the subject and the interest that it has aroused. In general, I am a firm believer in the principle of making junior Ministers do a good deal of work, particularly in the small hours of the morning. However, I thought it proper to depart from that principle on this occasion.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in the debate have asked me a number of questions. In view of the demand that the position should be made quite plain, I shall seek to answer all those questions definitely and, I hope—though I cannot be certain of this—to the satisfaction of hon. Members.

I begin with the question about why there are talks between the Argentine and ourselves on this issue. There is more than one reason. The first is the Resolution passed in the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1965. I cannot accept—but I do not think that this is a major point—the proposition that that Resolution was in some ways ultra vires. If Paragraph 7 of Article 2 of the Charter were interpreted in the way that it was sought to be interpreted here, the range of questions left that the United Nations could discuss would be extremely limited.

There are plenty of instances of arguments about sovereignty, or about possible transfers of territory, being regarded as proper to be discussed in the United Nations. But proper to be discussed is one thing. Agreeing with what has been said in the discussions is another. The United Kingdom did not vote for the Resolution, but it has always been the policy of the Government, and I think rightly, that even when we have not been able to agree with the United Nations we should not treat Resolutions passed in the General Assembly simply with silence, still less with contempt. In the kind of world in which we live it is of great importance to maintain this principle, because, if it can be done, the building up of the authority of the United Nations is of enormous importance both to us and to mankind.

That was one reason, but there was a further reason, and I want to stress this one particularly having in mind the interesting and helpful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon). It is concerned with the position of the islanders themselves. There is only one point on which I think I disagree with my hon. Friend, in that he seemed to trace the uncertainty or the uneasiness in the islands solely to the events of the last two years, but I think he will know that for some considerable time Argentina has advanced her claim, and there has been repeated argument in many different forms about this.

Further, more recently communication between the islands and the mainland has been cut off. This is a source, to say the least, of vexation and inconvenience to the islanders. Some of them have children in this country for various reasons. From time to time they want to make visits to this country, and the cutting off of direct communication between them and the nearest mainland available to them is, to say the least, a vexation and an inconvenience.

I want the House to notice this further point. In the kind of world in which we live, in which the physical possibilities of travel are always improving, in which, particularly to the younger generation, the possibility of taking part in a wider world is always there, for a small community like this to be seriously at variance with a large continental neighbour could be an increasing source of vexation and uncertainty to the islands.

It would therefore be wrong to behave as though this aspect of the matter was of no importance, and one reason for being willing to enter into talks with Argentina was that it was not desirable to have a situation in which there was already this degree of inconvenience and vexation imposed, and to leave simply to fester a situation in which the smaller community was at variance with its nearest mainland neighbour, and a neighbour which, as we all know, is a country of great and growing importance in the world.

I was glad to notice that those hon. Members who raised this matter were anxious to make it clear that they did not do so in any spirit of hostility to Argentina. I think we had to notice that not only Argentina, but Latin America as a whole, is a part of the world that is going to be of increasing importance in trade, and in the United Nations, to which, whatever may be the views of hon. Gentlemen opposite, those nations certainly attach a great deal of importance, and in which they have votes and influence. This seems to be a second reason for entering talks, that it was desirable, if it could be done, to get a permanently satisfactory relationship between the islanders and Argentina. For that reason, I reject any criticisms of the Government's action in holding the talks at all. It was right to do so, and it would have been short-sighted not to do so. I must therefore answer, "No," to one of the questions of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South: I would not be prepared to say that there will be no further talks on this issue. It was right to begin them and right that they should continue.

The talks have been at both Ministerial and official level. It is not true to say that they have been conducted—as it has been put—"over the heads" or "behind the backs" of the islanders. There have been consultations with the Governor of the islands, who had authority to acquaint his Executive Council with what Her Majesty's Government were doing—

Mr. Braine

The right hon. Gentleman has made a statement completely at variance with the letter sent to hon. Members by the four unofficial members of the Executive Council and with what one of them, at present in this country, has told us. This must be cleared up: we understand that there has been no consultation, that the Governor has not been able to explain what is going on, and it is this which is causing the House such deep anxiety. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that there has been consultation?

Mr. Stewart

I repeat what I said: first, there has been consultation with the Governor; second, he had authority to tell his Executive Council, under the condition of secrecy, which binds it in a way comparable to that of the Privy Council in this country, what we were doing. That is a fact, and I cannot be responsible for statements made by others.

As a further example, there have also been consultations between Mr. Barton, who has been over here, with my noble Friend the Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs. These consultations will continue in such manner and through such channels as seem most useful and appropriate. But it would be wrong to suggest—and I reject the suggestion—that we have done this over the heads or behind the backs of the islanders. As to the nature of the talks themselves—

Mr. Clark Hutchison

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Governor and some members of the Executive Council do not know and have some sort of consultation, but the islanders did not know and, because of the secrecy of the talks, could not know.

Mr. Stewart

That does not conflict with what I have said. Rather, it reaffirms what I have said, in contradiction of what the hon. Member for Essex, South (Mr. Braine) quoted. The consultation which has already gone on is not the end of the matter. It will continue in such form and through such channels as seems most likely to be appropriate and helpful.

It is the normal practice for talks like this to be confidential, but there are some things which it would be appropriate to say about them now. Our object in conducting these talks is to secure a lasting and satisfactory modus vivendi between these islands and Argentina, because we believe this to be a necessary long-term aim of policy. In this way, we are carrying out what Lord Caradon said in the United Nations: There are two basic principles we cannot betray; the principle that the interest of the people must be paramount and, second, that the people have the right freely to express their own wishes as to their future. To answer other questions that have been asked, I endorse and confirm what Lord Caradon said on that occasion. And since we are speaking of the interests of the people, I would like whole heartedly to join in the many tributes that have been paid to this small and valiant community—these valiant, hard-working, law-abiding good friends of this country and good members of the whole human community. Our object in these talks has been to secure that there is a satisfactory arrangement between them and Argentina.

We have thought it right, in pursuance of this objective, that the question of sovereignty should be discussed in these talks. Since there has been a good deal of stress placed on this aspect, I will explain why we have taken this view. The hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) particularly stressed the desirability of good relations with Argentina. I fully accept the proposition that one cannot buy good relations by giving away things that one should not give away. However, it is also true that if one is genuine in saying that one wants good relations, one cannot refuse to discuss a subject even if one's views and the views of the other party are completely at variance and even if one cannot see, at the beginning of the talks, how those differences are to be reconciled.

The House will accept that there was here a genuine problem to be resolved; our undoubted duties and obligations to our fellow subjects in the islands and our duty also—again, in their interest—to get a satisfactory agreement, if it could be obtained, and the fact that it would not have been prudent, farsighted and in the interest of the islanders for us to preclude any possibility of discussion by saying that we would not even discuss this question of sovereignty.

As has been pointed out, Governments of both complexions in this country have been prepared to put this question to the International Court. I do not believe, therefore, that there is any valid ground for criticism of what the Government have done, simply on the ground—and I make no secret of this—that this question has formed part of the talks.

We have no doubt whatever that the sovereignty is now legally ours. I need not go over all the legal and historical arguments that have been advanced. Since it is in our sovereignty, we have a clear duty, as we have towards any other place in our sovereignty, to defend it. I need not say more on this aspect, except to make it quite clear that while some of the detailed questions on defence that have been put to me in the debate are perhaps more matters for my right hon. Friend, we have no doubt that these Islands are in our sovereignty and that we therefore have, as we have for other places in our sovereignty, a duty to provide for their defence.

Having said that, I turn to something which I must say and of which I hope to persuade the House, even if, at first sight, hon. Members may find it a little difficult. If we mean what we say about desiring good relations with the Argentinians, we must at least be prepared to admit that while we are firmly convinced of our legal sovereignty over these islands they are equally firmly convinced of their claim. You get nowhere at all if you start by assuming that the person with whom you are discussing is not even sincere. We have to recognise, therefore, that here there is a problem between two nations who desire to be friendly, who take different views as to what their rights are. It is in the interests of both of them and of the Islands that if possible that dispute shall be resolved. Can it be done? I hope it can. I think it is of great importance for the islanders. If possible it should be done. The House will see from the way I have defined the problem that it will not be easy to do it. Let me at once dispel any fears which I think the hon. Member expressed. Apart from anything else I say, the idea that at any moment there is going to be a transfer of sovereignty has no relation to the facts at all. There is no justification for that in the Islands or as a hope or expectation in Argentina.

I come to what I think the House will regard as really the heart of the matter. At what possible time, or in what possible event or circumstances, could a transfer of sovereignty be made? If we take the view that in order to get a proper modus vivendi this country must at any rate be prepared to discuss time and circumstances in which, if certain conditions were fulfilled, it would agree to cession of sovereignty, the vital question is, in what time, in what circumstances, under what conditions? I think the House will agree that this is really the heart of the matter, and it is to that I now want to address myself. I hope that the House will not feel that I have detained it for too long in describing the matters which have led up to this, because it is extremely important.

We do not want to be at odds with a friendly nation. We do not want to betray people who have a claim on us. This is not a matter which can be quickly dismissed or quickly resolved. I say, in what event or in what time could a transfer of sovereignty be considered? To that my answer would be, first, only as part of an agreement which would secure a permanently satisfactory relationship between the islands and Argentina, in which there would be no harassing, no vexation, no inconveniences, and an arrangement also in which if there were a transfer of sovereignty there would be the fullest safeguards for the special rights of the islanders, the fact of their descent, their language and so on.

That is one condition, that the cession of sovereignty could be considered only as part of an agreement of that nature, but further—notice this—the right to agree to such a cession lies with Her Majesty's Government here. That, of course, is a simple point of law, that the actual power to decide over a transfer of sovereignty lies with Her Majesty's Government here. But I say this quite clearly, Her Majesty's Government would agree to such a cession only, first on the condition I have mentioned that it must be part of an agreement fully satisfactory in other respects, and secondly, only if it were clear to us, to the Government in the United Kingdom, that the islanders themselves regarded such an agreement as satisfactory to their interests. That, I think, is the matter to which the House has attached the greatest importance, and I hope that what I have said will be carefully noted and weighed.

The Government are entitled to ask for the support and understanding of both sides of the House in this matter, since it was not one which could be dismissed quickly merely by repeating a slogan or by historical reference. It is part of the changing world in which we live, and in which we have, as I say, to perform our duty to the islanders, a duty which, in my judgment, is performed by the last condition which I have clearly stated, while at the same time seeking a satisfactory relationship both for them and for us with Argentina.

I think that I can claim to have answered clearly the questions which were put to me, and I hope that I have answered them to the satisfaction of the House.

Mr. Clark Hutchison

The right hon. Gentleman has said, "If the inhabitants of the islands regarded the arrangements as satisfactory". Those are vague words. I asked that there should be no transfer of sovereignty without the consent of the inhabitants, and originated by them.

Mr. Stewart

I could not answer "Yes" to the last phrase, "originated by them'', because the subject has already been originated and it is a matter of discussion between them and us.

The hon. Gentleman is not right in saying that the words I used were vague. It must be clear to us that the islanders themselves regard the arrangements as satisfactory. If they regarded the arrangements as satisfactory, they would be consenting to them. If they did not regard them as satisfactory, they would not be consenting to them. I think, therefore, that the meaning of the phrase—

Mr. Clark Hutchison

indicated dissent.

Mr. Stewart

I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman claims to see a difficulty there. Surely, what I have said is plain English. It is exactly what I mean, and the meaning is plain.

Mr. Braine

The right hon. Gentleman made plain at the end of his speech that the Government will have full regard for the wishes of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands. As I understand it, their full and openly expressed consent would be necessary before there could be any change in sovereignty. If that is what the right hon. Gentleman means, I am prepared to accept it. I think that that is satisfactory. But he has still not answered one question. If this has been in the Government's mind all the time, why was there so much secrecy? Why were not the representative institutions on the island told what the negotiations were about? Mr. Barton has said that the Executive Council has been kept in ignorance. Why has this little community been kept in the dark? Why could they not have been told, since it is now clear that the Government are tender for their interests?

Mr. Stewart

First, may I say that the facts about who has been told are exactly as I stated them. Second, to have conducted the whole thing in the light of day, before the whole Island, would have meant, in effect, conducting it before the whole world, with the discussions taking place virtually in public. The hon. Gentleman said that he was a Commonwealth man. But he is used to the processes of diplomacy. He must accept that if one wants agreement there are occasions when one is more likely to get it if there is a degree of privacy about the consultations. It may be a pity that this is so. It may be a pity that human beings are so constructed that one cannot always reach wise decisions by completely public discussions. I think that we were right, in view of the many misinterpretations which may have been put on every sentence said by a diplomat or Minister who took part in the talks, to conduct them as such talks are usually conducted, in private and in confidence, but with the measures we took to see that the Governor was informed and that he had the authority to inform the Executive Council. This was the right balance between taking everyone into our confidence and conducting the talks in a way which gave them some chance of success.

Mr. John Smith

How long does the right hon. Gentleman think that the period of uncertainty will last? How long will it be before we get a bit of certainty about the future?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that it would be wise for me to try to guess the answer to that question. We have made considerable progress in these talks and I hope that they may reach a satisfactory conclusion. I do not think that it would be sensible to prophesy a date.

Mr. Kenyon

I do not know whether hon. Members know that the Governor was here in February and would have been informed of the circumstances by the Foreign Secretary. But Mr. Barton had left the island when the Governor got back and, therefore, he would not know what the Governor had learnt. I know that Mr. Barton went to Germany.

Mr. Stewart

I think I ought to stick to what I know to be fact about the way the Governor has behaved.