Royal Airman

11.15.11

Prince William in the Falklands Is a Reminder to Argentina

Prince William is to be sent to the Falkland Islands as part of his service. The Army insists it's just routine, but it's hard to ignore the political undertones, writes Tom Sykes.

Next year marks 30 years since Britain defeated Argentina in the brief but bitter Falklands conflict, but Argentina has never abandoned its claim to the islands—and their oil-rich maritime territories.

With support for Argentina’s claim building not just across newly powerful South America but also in Washington, it’s not particularly hard to fathom why the British Ministry of Defence should have decided to post Prince William, of all people, to the rocky outcrop in the South Atlantic in the run-up to the anniversary of the conflict.

Despite all the protestations by military top brass to the contrary, William’s arrival in the Falkland Islands is a clear reminder of the British position: this is our territory, and we’re not giving it up. Now clear off.

William, a flight lieutenant with the RAF, will be deployed to the islands for six weeks to fly search-and-rescue helicopter missions during February and March. It seems likely that he will have left by April 2, 2012, the actual day that marks the 30th anniversary of the Argentine landings and occupation of Las Malvinas.

The Falklands War lasted 74 days and resulted in the deaths of 3 civilians, 255 British troops, and 649 Argentine troops. Argentina surrendered to the British in June 1982 but never renounced its claim to the islands. Margaret Thatcher was swept back to power in the U.K. on the wave of patriotic feeling that accompanied the conflict, and the Falkland Islanders have never wavered either in their approval for Thatcher or in their desire to remain as the last piece of pink in the British Empire.

Argentina has periodically restated its claim to the islands—which are not just a strategic air base for the Brits but also currently a major focus for British-backed oil explorers such as Rockhopper and Desire Petroleum, raising the heady prospect of a second British offshore oil boom. Unsurprisingly, the news that the heir to the British throne is to be sent to the Falklands for a look-see has not gone down particularly well in Argentina, despite assurances that he will not carry out any royal engagements while on the overseas territory, and that if his deployment coincides with any events commemorating the 1982 conflict, it is thought “unlikely” he will attend. Well, not in an “official” capacity, anyway.

Sebastian Brugo Marco, director of the Malvinas and South Atlantic at the Argentine Foreign Ministry, apparently isn’t convinced. He told La Nacion newspaper in Buenos Aires, "We cannot ignore the political aspect of this military operation, taking into account that the prince forms part of the royal family."

Despite all the protestations by military top brass to the contrary, William’s arrival in the Falkland Islands is a clear reminder of the British position: this is our territory, and we’re not giving it up. Now clear off.

Brugo Marco said the duke's deployment represents "another provocative act by Great Britain, with its military presence in a peaceful zone where there is no armed conflict." The British government's attitude "contrasts with the search for dialogue" shown by Argentina in international forums, he added.

However, even phrases like "search for dialogue" irritate the British, who insist that all the talking was done 30 years ago and there is nothing more to say.

The Ministry of Defence has taken the unusual step of taking to the airwaves to defend William’s posting, with Britain’s chief of the armed forces, David Richards, appearing on Sky News to insist that William’s deployment “wasn’t and isn’t designed to be” a provocative act, adding, with typical British understatement, "They clearly disagree with us over the Falkland Islands, but we're all determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1982."

Argentina, however, has won over some powerful allies in its ongoing campaign to renegotiate the sovereignty of the Falklands in the 30 years since it was forcefully ejected, including the Obama administration. At a press conference in Buenos Aires last year, Hillary Clinton said, “We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way.

Sit down across a table with the Argies for a friendly chat about the Falklands? You’d have more chance getting the English World Cup side of 1986 to play a charity benefit for Diego Maradona.