Falkland Islands

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 14th April 1982.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 6:48 pm, 14th April 1982

I think that the House will agree that it has been a necessary and a useful debate. Although we have had little new information—and I do not blame the Prime Minister for being unable to give us more at this delicate moment—it has enabled us to establish a broad consensus rather more firmly and precisely than in the earlier debate on the major issues at stake in the Falklands crisis.

There have been on each side of the House some notable exceptions to the consensus, and I applaud the courage of those such as the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) and my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) who put unpopular views but with great strength and knowledge of some of the issues.

Overwhelmingly we agree that we are dealing here with an act of aggression. It was recognised as such by the Security Council. It has been seen as an offence against the United Nations charter. After listening to the arguments again today, I find it more difficult than ever to understand the odd line of reasoning used by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, that a Government who use forces to pursue a territorial claim that they believe to be justified on historical grounds are not committing aggression.

Let us face it, there are very few frontiers that are not disputed by one country or another. Even in our country we have a dispute about where the line should go between the Republic of Eire and Northern Ireland. There are disputes between France and Spain on their common frontier, between France and Germany and in the Middle East, Africa, the Far East and Latin America. There is scarcely a single frontier whose rectitude is not disputed by one party or another. If Mrs. Kirkpatrick's line were to be accepted, we should no doubt soon see her justifying an attack by Mexico on Texas, California or New Mexico.

However, if we take this view it has some implications, upon which I hope the House will reflect on another occasion, on the attitudes that we should follow where territorial disputes have been successfully pursued by force in recent times, and, notably, in the case of the island of Cyprus. We cannot take one line on one part of the world and another on another simply because it happens to be inconvenient to our personal interests or attitudes.

We are also agreed on what the rest of the United Nations Security Council resolution said, when it demanded an Argentine withdrawal and a diplomatic solution to the dispute. We are mostly agreed that we shall not get either the withdrawal or the solution unless the British Government are able to provide the strength against which to negotiate. Therefore we have supported the dispatch of the naval task force. I support today the recent decision by the Prime Minister to increase the air power available to the task force, and an early decision to provide it with something that was peculiarly lacking in early descriptions of the force—a capability to sweep mines in deep waters.

I should also like to congratulate the Government, for once, on declaring the maritime exclusion zone and doing so in time to ensure that we had at least one round up the spout before Secretary Haig arrived to explore the scope for negotiation. It was rather nifty footwork for the Prime Minister to take this decision between the moment when the Foreign Secretary sat down in the debate last Wednesday and the moment when the Defence Secretary stood up. There is no doubt that that decision helped to increase the enthusiasm of all concerned to explore the possibilities of a solution.

I should like to put one question to the Foreign Secretary. The Government have been wise to plan on doubling the size of the Harrier force that is to accompany the naval task force and to provide it with the deep water minesweepers. I imagine that the conversion of the ship to carry Harriers will take some time and there will be more time for the ship equipped with Harriers to sail to the South Atlantic. The minesweepers—I gather that they are deep sea trawlers that are to be converted—travel at about ten knots, so it will take some time for them to arrive.

Therefore, the force will not be fully equipped as the Government have decided that it should be until some time after the date when it was originally envisaged that the task force would be on the spot in the South Atlantic—the end of next week. This gives us more time for negotiation before the question of a major military action can arise. We must spend that time in very intensive negotiations.

Therefore, I should like to explore the state of the negotiations, recognising that it is not possible, I readily allow, for the Government to comment in too much detail on some of the ideas that I put forward. But it is right to put them forward in the House, and it is the duty of an Opposition spokesman to do so.

It seems to me that if we are to believe what has appeared in the newspapers over the last few days, the shape of a diplomatic settlement falls into two phases. The first phase is that in which we secure the withdrawal of the Argentines from the Falkland Islands lock, stock and barrel, as the Prime Minister said—and not only the military personnel but the civilian personnel and any drapery that they happen to have with them. On the other hand, it seems to appear from recent news reports that we are very unlikely to secure the withdrawal of the Argentines from the Falklands unless we can arrange for them to be replaced by some authority whose presence does not pre-empt the solution of the second stage of the diplomatic negotiation.

The second stage, which has been discussed a good deal in these debates, is the negotiation of a future status of the Falkland Islands which will offer the islanders greater military security and perhaps more material prosperity than they have enjoyed till now. If I interpret properly the Foreign Secretary's interesting dialogue with Mr. Walden on Sunday morning, he does not rule out some sharing of authority after the Argentine withdrawal while negotiations on the future status of the islands proceed. In that connection I agree with my hon. Friends the Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd) and Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy).

I hope that the Government will seriously consider replacing the Argentines during this first phase with some form of United Nations presence, whether it is as an administrator or as a truce team. There are some very interesting precedents for this. In 1947, for example, the United Nations established a presence which operated effectively in the crisis over sovereignty in the Dutch East Indies. There was another perhaps more relevant example in the 1960s when the United Nations established a temporary authority in West New Guinea in a dispute over sovereignty between the Netherlands and Indonesia. That held the ring for nine months until May 1963, when a resolution of the dispute was effected.

While not necessarily promoting this concept, the Foreign Secretary did not rule it out—he actually used those words in his discussion with Mr. Walden on Sunday—and this may be a very useful weapon of diplomacy if we really want to get a peaceful diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) was right to say in response to an intervention that it was very difficult—indeed, it has hardly even ever been done—for the United Nations to use force to defeat aggression. But it can administer and it can police. In a situation such as this the United Nations might have many advantages as a temporary presence on the islands, not least to be able to canvass the views of the islanders on possible solutions in the longer term in a position where neither Britain nor the Argentine, the main parties to this dispute, could be accused of exerting undue pressure.

That is not the only possible solution, of course, There are almost as many different diplomatic scenarios as there are military. But some solution along these lines may produce a framework in which the major negotiations between Britain and Argentina on the future status of the islands can take place.

The great majority of us agree—there were one or two notable exceptions during the debate—that the views and interests of the islanders must be paramount. After all, the central objective of our operation is to protect the right of self-determination of the islanders. But I was glad that last Sunday the Foreign Secretary echoed my words that we cannot say how the attitude of the islanders may have been affected by recent events. It could have moved in either direction and we certainly need an opportunity to canvass their views in a situation rather more normal than the one which exists now.

But we would all feel that it was very much in the interests of the islanders themselves to resolve a situation which has condemned them to physical insecurity and less material prosperity than they might have enjoyed for many years. The Prime Minister herself, in the moment of greatest excitement in the House when she spoke on Saturday, 3 April, made the point: The only way of being certain to prevent an invasion would have been to keep a very large fleet close to the Falklands, when we are some 8,000 miles away from base. No Government have ever been able to do that, and the cost would be enormous."—[Official Report, 3 April 1982; Vol. 21 c. 637.] This is a fact that the House really must not ignore, because it is the fact that has determined the attitude of successive British Governments to the peculiarly difficult problem of the Falklands. That problem is not unique in the world—there are several island territories. Very few of them are threatened externally in the way in which the Falklands have been, but some of them might be if the Argentines are able to get away with this one.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) expressed very strongly a different view. He suggested that any compromise on this issue would be wholly unacceptable, and he put the case with his usual glittering and icy logic—which is a wonderful machine for dazzling the groundlings. But I cannot help recalling that he used exactly the same glittering and icy logic to justify our doing nothing whatever about Rhodesia. Our responsibilities to the black population of Rhodesia were no less in those days than our responsibilities today to the white population of the Falklands, yet he then argued that, because we had not the physical capacity to do just what we wanted there, we had not the right to seek to influence the situation. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman made a fascinating speech, a pyrotechnic display of the type which always fills us with admiration.

The negotiations, of course, will be difficult and they must be conducted from a position of strength. But there is still some time left even before our task force is on the spot, fully equipped with the new facilities we have been told about today and yesterday. The only thing I would say is that we do not have infinite time. I do not think that time is necessarily on the side of a diplomatic solution.

As the economic sanctions bite on Argentina, as the rigours of an Antarctic winter bear ever more heavily on our own naval task force, as other issues begin to distract the world from our problem with the Argentine—there are some very dangerous problems facing the world, including the relations between Russia and the West, the risk of a new war in the Middle East; the list is almost infinite—and as other issues emerge strongly into international consciousness, there is the risk that impatience or despair might produce a spark which sets off a major conflict. In addition, of course, as time passes, the risk of a conflict involving other countries than Britain and Argentina—other countries in Latin America, perhaps other countries like the Soviet Union—will be liable to increase.

I end these remarks with an appeal to the United States. I believe from what I have read that Mr. Haig has made heroic efforts to get the process of negotiations started, and I can only applaud his courage—his physical courage as well as his intellectual stamina—in being prepared to undertake yet another voyage or perhaps series of voyages of diplomacy in the coming weeks.

I cannot help feeling, however, that the time has come when we must tell the United States that the attitude of an even-handed honest broker is not quite enough. We must recognise that the United States has legitimate diplomatic and economic interests in Latin America. Indeed, it has a whole foreign policy in Latin America which, for obvious geographical reasons, is of far greater importance to it than our Latin American policy will ever be for us. Nevertheless, I believe that if the United States were prepared to follow the examples set by Britain's European allies and at least to warn the Argentines that it, too, might cut off imports and stop supplying arms, it might sufficiently tip the balance.

Most of our discussions today have revolved around the principles at stake—the principle of not allowing the aggressor to get away with it and the principle of self-determination. But there is even more than principle at stake. There is the stability of the Western hemisphere, which may depend—in my view, will depend—on early and successful diplomatic action, in which the United States must take a more active and positive role than it has until now.