HC Deb 05 February 1976 vol 904 cc1414-7

Mr. Tugendhat (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the attack on a British vessel by the Argentine destroyer.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

At 12.30 GMT on 4th February, an Argentine destroyer, the "Almirante Storni", fired shots across the bows of the Royal Research Ship "Shackleton". The Argentine destroyer threatened to fire into the hull of the "Shackleton" if she did not heave to. Subsequently the destroyer ordered the "Shackleton" to proceed to the port of Ushuaia near Cape Horn. The Governor of the Falkland Islands instructed the captain to continue steaming towards Port Stanley, which he did and arrived at 20.45 GMT.

The incident took place 78 miles south of Cape Pembroke as "Shackleton" was returning from a period of scientific work in the South-West Atlantic under an international programme.

On learning of the incident, my right hon. Friend immediately instructed the chargé d'affaires at Buenos Aires to deliver the strongest protest to the Argentine Government and to request that the Argentine destroyer immediately be ordered to stop harassing the "Shackle-ton". I also protested to the Argentine chargé here in equally vigorous terms. The Argentine Government have been left in no doubt of the serious view we take of this incident.

Mr. Tugendhat

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are very worried about the position of the Falkland Islanders, who are almost entirely dependent on the Argentine for their external communications and wholly so for their air communications? Can he confirm that there are only 37 Royal Marines on the islands and that the only naval vessel there is HMS "Endurance"? While we do not wish to exacerbate the situation in the Argentine, is the hon. Member not aware that in these circumstances a display of weakness is likely to precipitate precisely the kind of crisis we wish to avoid? Does he think that it would be appropriate to strengthen the garrison and the naval presence in the Falkland Islands? Can he also assure us that it is not the Government's intention, as has been reported in the Press, to withdraw HMS "Endurance" in March?

Mr. Rowlands

I have made very clear to the Argentine Government that we do not expect a repetition of this incident and that any further incidents will call into question the basis of our commercial and political relationship. I am sure the House will not expect me to think aloud about action we might have to take in the light of further incidents. I can confirm that there are 37 Royal Marines on the island. HMS "Endurance" is in Port Stanley and her helicopters proved useful in reconnaisance work in yesterday's incident. We shall obviously consider what further action is required in the light of developments and the response to our demands from the Argentine Government.

Mr. Conlan

Does my hon. Friend recognise that this is the second provocative action by the Argentine in a matter of weeks and that the Islanders will be extremely worried about the situation? Does he agree that it is far better to play it cool in this situation in order to remove the obvious anxieties and tensions that exist? Will he ask the Foreign Secretary to have discussions with his counterpart in Buenos Aires in order to cool the situation?

Mr. Rowlands

We shall do everything possible to cool the situation because, like my hon. Friend, we appreciate the worries and concern of the Islanders. I am not quite sure what our next course of action should be or what steps my right hon. Friend should take, especially in view of the fact that we have no ambassador in Buenos Aires and the Argentine does not have an ambassador here. However, we shall take every possible diplomatic initiative to cool the situation.

Mr. Thorpe

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that as the Falkland Islanders wish to remain under the sovereignty of this country, we realise and accept all the responsibilities and liabilities that that carries with it? When the hon. Gentleman saw the Argentine chargé d'affaires, was he given any explanation or attempted justification for their action?

Mr. Rowlands

We are conscious of our responsibilities to the Islanders, as previous Governments have been. The chargé d'affaires did not give me an explanation when I saw him last night. They have served a note upon us saying that they claim the waters for 200 miles around the Falkland Islands as part of their claim for the Islands and dependencies themselves.

Mr. Hooley

While an attack on an unarmed vessel like the "Shackleton" is clearly indefensible, does my hon. Friend not realise that, as long as we continue to hold on to 19th century colonies all round the globe, we shall get into this kind of complication?

Mr. Rowlands

The position of the Government is very clear. We respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders.

Mr. Luce

As it is Britain's primary responsibility to protect the interests of the Islanders, can the hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the Government will not scrap HMS "Endurance" in the defence review, as has been suggested in some quarters? Will the Government also use their influence with those Latin American Governments with whom we have close and important ties to urge them to press the Argentine Government to stop bullying the Islanders?

Mr. Rowlands

No decision has been taken to scrap HMS "Endurance", which is in Port Stanley at the moment. Of course we shall take every diplomatic opportunity to make representations and to ensure that the views, feelings and wishes of the Islanders are understood throughout Latin America.

Mr. Farr

This incident has highlighted how important it is to have an effective naval presence in that part of the world, so can the hon. Gentleman assure us that if HMS "Endurance" is not to be scrapped, it will be maintained in service at that station, which is of growing strategic importance?

Mr. Rowlands

In present circumstances, the presence of HMS "Endurance" is obviously important to allay the anxieties and fears of the Islanders. Everyone will recognise and acknowledge the difficulty of a complete naval presence in waters so many thousands of miles from home. We shall clearly take into account all factors when looking at the future naval disposition in the area.

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