HL Deb 10 May 1978 vol 391 cc976-81

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is true, as reported in the Observer on Sunday, 7th May, that 40 Argentinians are occupying Thule Island in the Falkland Dependencies, and if so, what action they propose to take.


My Lords, we have protested to the Argentine Government about these activities, which we understand are in support of the Argentine Antarctic research programme. The Argentinians can be in no doubt that we consider Southern Thule to be British territory. We are pursuing the issue.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that Answer, may I ask him whether it is true that the Argentinians have been on this island for nearly 18 months, and will the House not be astonished to learn that the Government seem to have been suppressing this information from the British public? Will he also bear in mind that, while all of us would hope that the relations between Britain and Argentine will improve, occupation of a British island by the Argentine Government, and the apparent acceptance of this by Her Majesty's Government, is not a firm basis for such a friendship?


My Lords, it would be incorrect to assume that these activities were in any way concealed from public knowledge. I understand that they were reported at the time in the news media; that is, towards the end of 1976. As to the other two points made by the noble Lord, I entirely agree. It is the fact that we are pursuing negotiations across the board on all outstanding issues, including the general issue of the future of that part of the world, with the Argentinians. Indeed, we expect that the two working groups on political and economic matters will reconvene this summer, followed by a ministerial meeting. It is in that context that an incident or a situation like this—which, again, I agree is a serious matter and should not be allowed to prejudice the success of the larger negotiations—will be viewed.


My Lords, is it understood that this occupation is temporary and for the purpose of research only? Has that been made clear in the argument on the part of the Argentinians?


Yes, my Lords. The Argentinians established a research station on Thule Island some time in 1976. We protested, and in that way protected our legal claim to sovereignty. We understood that the residence, if I may call it that, was to be temporary; and it is a fact that, because of climatic conditions, seasonal adversity, it is practically impossible to be there all the year round. In that sense, it is a non-continuous residence. However, it is important, in the context of the larger negotiation now proceeding, in which we are seeking general accord and general co-operation for the development of the South-West Atlantic area, to the mutual benefit of all three countries—the United Kingdom, the Falkland Islands and Argentina—that incidents or situations like this, whether temporary or not, should not be allowed to grow out of proportion and imperil those larger and vital negotiations.

Lord HOME of the HIRSEL

My Lords, do I understand, though, that there was no request of the British Government before the Argentine Government put their station on Thule Island, and that therefore this is an illegal occupation? Is it not very dangerous to leave that sort of situation hanging in the air for 18 months or longer, and would it not really encourage the Argentine Government to try something more ambitious, and even more dangerous? Ought they not to be given a time in which to get out?


My Lords, it is quite true that there was no application to us for permission to land on this island, which is certainly British territory. It is equally true that we are prepared, in the larger context of agreement, to co-operate in research across the whole area, and that is the way in which research in seismology, meteorology and other departments can best be conducted. I am more doubtful of the noble Lord's suggestion that we should try something, as he said, which is more positive. We have in fact not left the matter suspended. We have taken the diplomatic and political action which secures our position legally, and we have left the Argentinians in no doubt whatsoever how we regard sovereignty. We regard this island as being British. Against that background of insisting on sovereignty, we are prepared to continue with the negotiations. I and, no doubt, my right honourable friend would have to consider very carefully indeed the implications of the latter part of the noble Lord's supplementary question.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether this island belongs to anybody other than to Her Majesty's Government or the Crown—for instance, does it belong to the Falkland Islands Company—and, if so, whether the owner has made any protest about this, or whether there is any suggestion that a negotiation might be made with the object of establishing a trespass or some matter in civil law?


My Lords, I would prefer, and I am sure Her Majesty's Government would prefer, to rest on the firm fact that this island, and indeed the South Sandwich Islands, of which it is part. is within British sovereignty. On that we do not move. We are prepared, without prejudice to that fact, to negotiate, as I have said, on every other matter of mutual concern. As to the ownership within that sovereignty, I have no information, but I should like to look into this and perhaps inform the noble Viscount of the position.


My Lords, could my noble friend arrange for a map to be made available, so that noble Lords who may think there is some value in this island will see that there is none? Further, in supporting the purpose behind the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, would he take the opportunity to point out to the Argentine Government that this concerns not only harmonious relations in regard to the Falkland Islands but the whole of the future of co-operation under the Antarctic Treaty? Because, although this is outside the Antarctic Treaty area, I understand, nonetheless it is a very damaging move by the Argentinians at this moment.


My Lords, I think I agree with everything my noble friend has said. He has unrivalled knowledge of this area, which is not very accessible to most of us. It lies 1,200 miles to the South of the Falkland Islands, and only some 60 miles to the North of the Antarctic Treaty line. Anything below that line, as noble Lords will know, is subject to the 1959 Treaty. In actuality it is demilitarised, and in effect internationalised. As to the condition of the island, I am told that it is quite barren; is normally uninhabitable; and, indeed, as I pointed out in answer to the noble Lord's supplementary, is habitable for research purposes only for parts of the year.


My Lords, would not Her Majesty's Government agree that the fact that the Argentinian Government, totally out of character, have made no political capital whatsoever out of their presence on Southern Thule, in the light of Her Majesty's Government's tacit and somewhat tardy acceptance of their presence, points to Her Majesty's Government's opinion that their presence there has no sinister implications whatsoever?


My Lords, we do not assume sinister implications, especially in the middle of what we cautiously hope will be productive negotiations. In that respect I welcome the noble Lord's intervention. We shall certainly continue talking to the Argentinians in that sense, but I should like to make it clear once more that there is absolutely no doubt about the sovereignty of these islands. On that we rest. There is, equally, no doubt about our genuine intention to pursue the negotiations which are now on course with a view to attaining general accord and a system of general co-operation for the benefit of everybody in that area.


My Lords, since the Argentine Government have been advertising for tenders for fishing the territorial waters around the Falkland Islands, and since increasingly fishing is becoming important in that part of the world—and round the Island of Thule as well—and since there may also be oil on the Falkland Islands, will the noble Lord assure the House that the Government will robustly defend our commercial interests?


Certainly, my Lords. This lies very much at the heart of the present negotiations. In robustly defending our own interest and that of the Falkland Islanders, whose interests must be paramount throughout, in this matter, we shall, I believe, be defending and expanding the interests of all concerned in that area. There is plenty for everybody to do peacefully in the South-West Atlantic, and the only condition for that is political agreement as to general co-operation for proper exploitation on land and sea in this area.


My Lords, would the Minister be good enough to ascertain from the Opposition what they mean by the word "robust", having regard to the fact that we have spent over £80,000 million on defence since the end of the war? Does "robust" mean asking the Chief of the Defence Staff to make a speech promising undying friendship with the Argentine for ever?


My Lords, I imagine that my noble friend's supplementary question is directed in part to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, who first used the word "robust". I hesitate myself to intervene in a war between "Whigs" and Tories. On the other hand, I take on board everything that has been said and particularly the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Home, the former distinguished Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whose words and views will be very carefully considered, not only in this country but in the other countries concerned. Equally I note what my noble friend Lord Wigg has said.


My Lords, will the noble Lord put on the record the number of protests we have made on behalf of this Government and country in all sorts of episodes which seem to be occurring throughout the world, so that the country will know when to question how these protests have been dealt with?


My Lords, I will consider how to satisfy the curiosity of the noble Baroness about the persistence with which we have put our point of view to the Argentinians. We have done so consistently and frequently and they are under no illusions at all as to how the United Kingdom regards this particular situation and the general question of sovereignty in the Falkland Islands.