HC Deb 05 July 1978 vol 953 cc620-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Frank R. White.]

11.0 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I wish to raise on the Adjournment the illegal occupation of South Thule, in the Falkland Islands, by the Argentine.

This debate is taking place as the result of an unsatisfactory exchange at Question Time on 24th May. It relates to the illegal occupation, by an Argentine expedition of about 50 persons, of Southern Thule Island, which is one of the South Sandwich Island group, in the Falkland Islands Dependencies, lying far to the east of the Falkland Islands and over 1,400 miles from Argentina.

I remind the House that on 24th May I asked whether Argentina had yet brought to an end this squatting, and, if not, when their departure would take place. Tonight, six weeks later, my remarks will hinge around these two essential questions—namely, whether Argentina has ended this occupation, and, if not, when their departure will take place.

I suggest right away that if Argentina has ended the occupation or is about to end it, perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to indicate that in the usual way. I would then sit down right away and we could have an early night's sleep. In the absence of that confirmation, I should like to point out that this occupation was first published and generally known on 7th May, about two months ago. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, want to know why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been so reluctant to make the announcement about this particular incursion beforehand.

If Her Majesty's Government are unable to give confirmation that the illegal occupation is about to come to an end, I want to urge the Minister to say tonight quite clearly that the situation which was continued there for about 20 or 21 months will no longer be tolerated and that Her Majesty's Government will formally notify the Argentine Government that, after a reasonable period for evacuation of personnel and stores—say, six months or thereabouts, which would enable the evacuation to take place in the spring and summer months there—after 31st December this year any illegal immigrants will be repatriated in the normal manner to their homeland.

I very much hope that tonight the Minister will give the House that particular assurance. It is a simple, straightforward request. A statement of that nature would be in accordance with international custom and precedent.

Whatever are the considerations in the Minister's mind, possibly relating to export orders for Argentina or matters relating to questions about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands group as a whole, they should be of no concern to him in this particular issue, as they surely only fudge what is a perfectly clear case of illegal occupation by peope from a country which has a military Government.

Another point which has been puzzling the House for some time and which the Minister must clear up tonight is why the Government have remained silent about this invasion for about 21 months. Is it true that the Falkland Islands office in London was asked to keep quiet about this invasion when it occurred nearly two years ago, and, if so, what was the purpose of this conspiracy of silence? Can the Minister tell us what has been achieved since November 1976, when this occupation began?

In order to give a little background to the present serious situation, I shall remind the House of one or two facts which are of great importance. Southern Thule lies nearer to the Falkland Islands than it does to Argentina. A few years ago a navel vessel visited the island and raised the Argentine flag there, and, as far as is known, they were the first Argentinian people to visit the South Sandwich Islands, which had been British since their discovery by Captain Cook in 1775.

What are the consequences if this illegal occupation is allowed to continue? Surely, if it is allowed to continue it will be an invitation, by tacit assent, for Argentina or any other ambitious country to establish bases on other islands in the Falkland Islands which bases might well be physically defended. If this occupation remains unchallenged and these people are allowed to remain where they are, it will be an open invitation not only to the Argentine Government to take steps of this nature and perhaps cast their eyes elsewhere in the group but for other countries to do the same, especially in view of the possibility of there being very large oil and other natural resources under the ocean.

The Falkiandese people themselves—one tends to take it for granted that they are British and wish to remain so; the Minister was there recently and he found out for himself how staunchly pro-British they are—are very worried about this incursion. They are becoming more and more worried now because, apparently, Her Majesty's Government are pursuing the matter by sending messages to the Argentine Government and leaving it at that.

It is possible that significant reserves of oil and other minerals could be found in the Falkland Islands group. If an illegal occupation is allowed to take place, it could well have a serious effect when it comes to our re-establishing our sovereignty and our rights to those resources on their being exploited. There are already known to be massive resources of natural food in the seas around the Falkland Islands which cover immense areas. The continued presence of a foreign base within the area would affect our establishment of sovereignty on those resources being exploited.

In 1976 we had an excellent report by Lord Shackleton dealing with some of the long-term problems in the Falkland Islands. The noble Lord made a number of important and interesting recommendations on the agro-structure of the country, education, further education and special measures for the economy and recommendations relating to fish and other matters in particular on extending the runway.

Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity tonight to say whether the Government will do something about those recommendations. As far as the House can ascertain, very few of the noble Lord's recommendations have been put into effect, though I gather that they received universal support from both sides of the House.

I hope that the Minister can give me an assurance that a message will be sent to the Argentine Government giving them a deadline by which they must be out and that he will do his best to end the continued aggro by Argentina and serve it notice to quit Southern Thule.

11.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

I accept and appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) and many other hon. Members about this issue. It is one involving the principle of sovereignty, and that is why we take it seriously.

I should like to make clear exactly what we are dealing with, as I think the hon. Gentleman started to do in his way. He spoke of the infringement of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. There has been some confusion about this in recent weeks. Let us clear up some of it.

We are not dealing with an illegal occupation of the Falkland Islands themselves. But our estimation, Thule is—I must take 200 miles away from the hon. Gentleman—about 1,200 miles south-east of the Falklands. It is an inlet in the Southern Thule group of islands, which are in turn the southernmost of the South Sandwich Islands, themselves one of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, as opposed to the Falkland Islands themselves

None of the islands is inhabited. Indeed, few are habitable. The islet is at present in the depth of the Antarctic winter. Not only is the weather bad, as one would expect in a place which is only 60 miles north of the Antarctic Treaty area, but there is constant seismic activity and there is a coating of penguin guano—there is a more colloquial expression which I do not know whether Mr. Deputy Speaker would allow me to use—up to a metre thick. In other words, it is a very unpleasant place to be at the best of times.

Nor are we dealing at this time with a military occupation. It is important to say that. Although the Argentines use service personnel for logistic support in their Antarctic work, their activities on Thule are purely scientific. I do not think that anybody has challenged that assumption.

We have a dialogue with the Argentines about scientific work in this area, and they have both explained to us and given details publicly of the scientific work that has been carried on. A recent Argentine article on the subject said: The aim"— of this activity— is scientific and includes the collection of meteorological and geological data, data on fauna and flora, magnetism, the study of the ice flows, heliography, etc. The hon. Gentleman should also be reminded that the Argentines have carried on this scientific work on Thule on previous occasions—in the 1954–55 and 1955–56 Antarctic seasons. The record shows that successive British Governments considered then, as now, that the best way to pursue an answer to the problems caused by such activity was by diplomatic action.

Indeed, I was extremely interested to consider how successive Governments have dealt with such situations. One of my predecessors in Mr. Churchill's Government reported to the House that there were no fewer than 11 such unauthorised occupations. He recommended—and rightly so—a policy of "firmness and patience". What is interesting about such a precedent is that the answer lay not in military confrontation but in diplomatic and political action. The result was a form of scientific co-operation which damaged the sovereignty arguments on neither side.

The hon. Member did not claim that we object to the scientific activities, and that is correct. We object to the fact that they are being carried out on British territory without our permission. That is the bone of contention of the hon. Member. What the Argentines are doing there does indeed constitute a violation of our sovereignty, and, as hon. Members are already aware, we have firmly protested to them about this. Our sovereignty position has thus been protected fully and explicitly.

It is important to spell out the background and perspective of the issue. We are disturbed at the renewal of activity on South Thule, despite its distance and despite the context in which I have placed the matter. When we learnt of it, we pursued the matter immediately. We are going back 18 months, but at that time we had reason to believe that the dispute would be resolved speedily and satisfactorily.

However, information was received at the end of 1977 that these activities might be renewed in the 1977–78 Antarctic season. We again protested to the Argentines, but because of the difficult conditions in the area, to which I have already referred, we were only able to verify that the Argentines had returned in February of this year.

It was only then that we had concrete and independent evidence that the Argentine activities were not short-term and temporary but had a wider and more permanent basis. The Governor in Port Stanley discussed the matter with the Falkland Island councillors, who have, of course, been informed of the action we have been taking in recent months.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a conspiracy of silence. I had a difficult decision to make on how to handle the issue. I thought that it would be wrong for us to have a slanging match with the Argentine Government. The original presence of the Argentines on the island had become known earlier and it had been mentioned in the Falkland Islands. The hon. Gentleman has a right to criticise me, but it was my view that we should not enter into a public slanging match on an issue which, I firmly believe, can and should be resolved by diplomatic and political action. I do not support the idea of a conspiracy of silence. Discussions took place between ourselves and the members of the important and valuable committee in London. I was not at the meetings, but the official view was that we would not embark on a slanging match and it was up to the committee to decide what to do. I go no further than that because there is no point in going over old ground.

The Government take this matter seriously. We have protected our sovereignty position by formal action and by diplomatic and political action. If the hon. Gentleman believes that by not pursuing a policy of direct and hard confrontation with Argentina we have jeopardised our sovereignty rights or the rights that follow from our sovereignty in regard to oil or fisheries, I can assure him that this is just not so. We firmly believe that international disputes and incidents of this sort, which are not new in our relationships with the Argentine Government, can and should be pursued by negotiation rather than by force.

It has been suggested by some that we should break off any form of negotiation with the Argentine Government and, therefore, pursue a course of confrontation. I say to those who take that view —the hon. Gentleman was extremely moderate in his remarks—that there are many wider issues involved in the discussions and negotiations concerning not only an uninhabited piece of territory, to which, nevertheless, we attach importance as the issue of sovereignty is raised, but the people of the Falkland Islands.

The matters under discussion and negotiation cover many areas of economic co-operation as well as sovereignty. To break off negotiations would be to take a serious step. It is one that we should not take without considering the full and fundamental implications.

We must say to the Argentine Government that the negotiations that began last year were begun in a spirit of agreement. My visit to the islands involved the most extensive consultation with the islanders. I challenge any Minister in a previous Government to say that it was not the most extensive that has ever been made. There were agreed terms of reference with the Argentine Government which implied that no action should be taken which would challenge the respective positions of sovereignty.

The development of our negotiations and discussions depends upon Governments creating the right climate and context. The Argentine authorities should and must be aware of that.

The Argentine Government's activities on Thule are only a part of the more general problem of our dispute with the Argentine Government about the Falkland Islands. The Government's policy throughout has been one designed to protect the interests and to further the prosperity of the Falkland Islanders. Such prosperity is inevitably dependent upon a measure of co-operation.

We must accept the realities of life. No one will invest in the area, privately or publicly, while a cloud of political uncertainty hangs over the future of the islands. Such investment is necessary whether for the development of possible, though as yet unproven, oil resources, of fishing or of industries based on alginates. That is why, with the explicit concurrence of the islanders, we have embarked on a series of meetings with the Argentine Government to explore possible ways forward in that respect.

These are early days. We have had only one meeting of the working group that was set up to consider the possibilities. We have made it clear to the Argentine Government that actions such as those they are undertaking in Southern Thule, and those which involve the harassment of shipping in waters over which we could ourselves claim fishing rights, make the process of negotiating much more difficult for us. However, like previous Governments in the 1950s and like other Governments who have dealt with such problems in the past, we believe that it is necessary to be patient. Patience can go hand in hand with firmness. That is what my predecessors have said from both sides of the House. I support that view.

Whenever and wherever there has been an Argentine infringement of our sovereignty, we have protested vigorously. By doing so we have protected our position. In parallel, we have been seeking solutions that would be compatible with both the development of the area and the desire of the islanders to remain British.

Although the exploratory process is still in an early stage, it is sure—everybody knows it and I have repeated it over and over again in the House—that no proposals will be brought before the House unless we know that such proposals have the support of the islanders. With that assurance, they have nothing to fear from the exploratory process on which we have embarked.

It is in that context that I ask the House to consider what I agree are disturbing developments on Southern Thule. Of course we should react. We have reacted promptly and firmly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that we should not over react.

Finally, I should say that, over many years, understandably the feeling has grown—and I think that the hon. Gentleman might express it not only on this occasion, but on others—that the Foreign Office, its Ministers and officials, thousands of miles away from the Falkland Islands, do not have deep concern and worries for the islanders and the islands. It is no part of my brief remarks tonight to comment on the historic past, but during the last two years we have tried to create a new relationship with the islanders based on consultation and contact.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Shackleton report. I share and support not only the sentiments but many of the recommendations in that report. We have made new efforts to get developments off the ground in order to meet what I once described as the "doorstep hopes" of the majority of islanders. They have an interest in getting on with a number of specific developments. We may not be able to accept some of the recommendations in the Shackleton report, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we have already done a great deal.

Mr. Farr

Does the Minister recognise that we cannot wait for ever for the Argentine Government to co-operate? Will he assure the House that if ready co-operation in a sensible manner, is not forthcoming from the Argentine Government at an early date, we shall proceed with the necessary work set out in the Shackleton report?

Mr. Rowlands

There are two different areas of developments. There are developments which extend beyond the islands and inevitably involve us in areas of co-operation with the Argentine Government. There are things on the islands that we can do which arise from the Shackleton report. That is what I meant when I referred to the "doorstep hopes" of the islanders. A great deal more progress has been made on those things in the last 18 months to two years than has been made for a very long time.

I am proud that, for the first time, a road is to be built between Stanley and Darwin. That is the result of pressures that have been brought to bear both personally ministerially and collectively. A new school is to be built. We have acquired public equipment so that the islanders may build some of these public developments. There is a host of things which have been listed in replies to Questions. I shall be happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with the list as he has taken such a genuine interest in this matter, an interest which I share.

Whatever criticisms one makes—the hon. Gentleman may make them—and however we choose to act or deal with the kind of problems we have had to face in relation to Southern Thule, our actions are dictated by real concern, created by my own knowledge of and contact with the islanders and for the well-being and future of the people I have the privilege and pleasure of serving as a Minister. It is in that context that I ask the hon. Gentleman to appreciate the way in which we are trying to deal with this incident.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.