Orders of the Day — Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:59 pm on 4th November 1982.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 7:59 pm, 4th November 1982

Predictably and predicted, foreseeably and foreseen in April by critics of the Falklands war, Latin American countries have now gone to the United Nations in the aftermath of a British military victory in and around the Falklands. No less predictable and no less predicted, the United States, where its long-term interests in hemispheric relations are concerned, is supporting its southern neighbours. It is far too glib of the Foreign Secretary to dismiss these events at the UN. He talked about a discussion of procedures by which sovereignty might most quickly be passed and an Argentine-inspired United Nations charade". Ministers have never looked at what the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) called the other side of the hill, or the South American viewpoint.

I wonder how the Foreign Secretary thinks that his word "charade" will go down with Tom Enders and George Schultz. They might not be pleased to be told that they were voting for a charade. It is unreal, petulant and childish of the Foreign Secretary to talk in those terms.

Those who put their faith in the United Nations cannot pick and choose their resolutions and will have to support the call for resumption of immediate negotiations on the question of sovereignty. That remark is addressed, as well, to my own Front Bench.

The more blood spilt, the more money expended, the more politically embarrassing such a course is. I heard the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) say that we have just buried our dead. I know all this, but the Foreign Secretary also talked about "normality" in relation to Argentina. Ministers must understand that, like it or not, there can be no normality until the issue of sovereignty is at least tackled, and probably resolved.

What is the alternative for any of us, whether or not we believe in the United Nations? If Britain refuses these negotiations, it is the spinechilling prospect of revenge strikes on the Falklands. The right hon. Member for Devonport talked about getting round to it in the fullness of time. Are we sure that we have time or that time is on our side? I am not scaremongering. Let us consider the facts. For what other reason is Argentina scouring the face of the world to get more efficient, longer-range Etendards with deadly Exocets?

I wish to raise particular matters with the Foreign Office, about which it has had warning. For seven hours there was a conversation between the French technicians who were turned back at the airport and their colleagues under the leadership of Monsieur Herve Colin in Argentina, saying exactly how an Exocet should be fitted to the wings of an aircraft. Engineers can understand instructions from their technical colleagues.

I quote from a letter that the Foreign Office has received from Isobel Hilton about the work that she did in Buenos Aires. She said, about some articles in The Sunday Times:The subject under discussion in our articles was the fact that, after the announcement of the weapons embargo by France, a French technical team actively assisted the Argentine navy with the final and crucial preparation for combat of its Super Etendards. Without this work, it is highly unlikely that the Arentines could have used their AM 39 missiles and the lives lost on the 'Sheffield' and the 'Atlantic Conveyor' would have been spared. Miss Hilton was very specific: To remind you of the evidence which is 'unavailable' to you: on Friday, July 9th, I travelled to Bahia Blanca, in Argentina, where I visited the Base Espora aeronaval base to talk to Commander Jorge Colombo, leader of the 2nd Attack Squadron of the Argentine Fleet Air Arm. This is the squadron of Super Etendards responsible for the Exocet attacks (AM 39) on the British fleet. I was researching a book The Sunday Times was preparing and hoped to discover the answer to a number of outstanding questions. Amongst these questions was how had Argentina managed to complete the outstanding technical work on her Super Etendards and Exocets and with what assistance?In the course of a three hour interview with Commander Colombo—which, with his permission, I tape recorded—he told me that the French technical team, which had arrived in November 1981 for a year's technical assistance, was still in Bahia Blanca. He further told me that, after the cancellation of the Aerospatiale team, the work they had been due to carry out had been done by the team already in Bahia Blanca, led by Herve Colin of Dassault. They had continued to work, as he put it 'like professionals' after the announcement of the French government embargo, installing and testing the missile launchers of the five Super Etendards delivered the previous November. As soon as that work was completed, the squadron flew south to their operational bases to continue training in the weather conditions of the South Atlantic and to wait for their targets to present themselves. As you know, the squadron flew south on April 19th and 20th. In the south, technicians from the Argentine navy slotted the Exocets into the launchers—a relatively uncomplicated task.

These are the French people who are still merrily supplying Argentina. She continued: Under the circumstances, I considered it unlikely that the word of an Argentine naval officer would be deemed sufficient to publish such serious 'allegations'. We therefore drove to the house in Bahia Blanca where Herve Colin was living with his family in order that he could confirm Colombo's story. We were cordially received. In the course of an hour long interview—also tape recorded"— these tape recordings have been offered to the Foreign Office, and I hope that the Foreign Office will study them— with permission, M. Colin confirmed Commander Colombo's statements and added further details of his own. He described in detail the technical difficulties the team had overcome—which included the repair of three missile launchers found to be defective—and added that, even after the squadron had flown south, the French team had volunteered to accompany them in order to ensure that no technical difficulties impede their operation. This offer was declined by the Argentine navy who preferred that the French remain in Bahia Blanca on call. This they did.We were struck by the omission from the French government statement of any denial by M. Herve Colin of the facts presented above. M. Colin further assured me that at no time had he been asked by his government or his company to leave Argentina. M. Colin, I understand, was recalled to France when our articles were published and remained unavailable to the French press. Surely not unavailable, though, to a French government inquiry. The tapes are there, and I ask that tonight, or on some other occasion, the Foreign Office give a reaction. It is this kind of evidence that makes the possibility of a revenge strike all too real.

Second, there is the question of nuclear policy. It is clear from the National Union of Seamen and other evidence that ships, including the Royal Fleet Auxiliary "Fort Austin", were ordered from Gibraltar to the South Atlantic on 28 and 29 March. It is also clear that some of these ships then, or at a later stage, were carrying nuclear warheads, dummy and real.

Did the Prime Minister, as elected leader of our country, know at the time that the nuclear weapons were being deployed to the South Atlantic? If the Prime Minster had that knowledge, that would make her answer on Tuesday 26 October that the Falklands crisis came "out of the blue" on Wednesday 31 March an untruth to Parliament.

On the other hand, if the Prime Minister did not know that nuclear weapons were being deployed to a potential theatre of shooting war, such a situation raises infinitely grave problems for every hon. Member on the political control and deployment of nuclear weapons. Have we an independent deterrent so independent that the Prime Minister does not know where the nuclear warheads are? If that is the definition of independent deterrent, it is a serious matter for all of us.

Alas, these questions are not theoretical. The circumstantial evidence points overwhelmingly in the direction of HMS "Sheffield" having gone down with nuclear weapons on board. It may be that the "Fort Austin" was in the process of collecting nuclear weapons from the fleet but had not yet reached HMS "Sheffield". However, if HMS "Sheffield" did not have nuclear weapons, for what other reasons do commanders ask their men to hazard their lives by trying to board a molten ship on tow, other than to salvage something that is desperately important? I put it to the House that the only thing of that importance was nuclear warheads.

The British have to come clean and tell the world that there are nuclear devices on the bottom of the South Atlantic, not in the kind of canister or steel and concrete casks of nuclear waste which may or may not give relative safety. Physicists that I have talked to have made various guesses about the level of danger arising from the emission of radio-nucleides. Some say that there is not much danger from pollution, but others say that the danger of radionucleides being emitted from the tomb of the Sheffield would be serious. It would be much better for a public statement from the Government to clear up this problem and at least tell the truth. Having allowed the conditions in which nuclear weapons were sunk, we ought to make a clean breast of the matter. Therefore, I ask the Government to notify the world of the details and the depths of the nuclear weapons sunk in the wreckage of HMS "Sheffield".

I also ask the Prime Minister why it was impossible for those ships carrying nuclear weapons during routine exercises in the Mediterranean to offload nuclear devices in Gibraltar before being ordered to the South Atlantic on 28 and 29 March. I associate with that question Mr. Jim Slater of the National Union of Seamen. It was possible to offload at Gibraltar, just as some of the ships that left Portsmouth were carrying nuclear weapons, and some of those nuclear weapons, if not all, were offloaded. It is not sufficient to say "Ah, but they would never have been used." We have only to look at page 158 of those moving published letters of David Tinker, the young Service man who lost his life in "Glamorgan" two days before the end of the war. He wrote: If they are sunk, they will have nothing to stop us from bombarding Buenos Aries. One of his senior officers even said: Drop a big white job"— that is a Polaris— on them". David Tinker said: Thank God he's not in command.

I simply say to the House that if one is being "Exoceted", there is a tremendous temptation to knock out the bases from which those Exocets come. If there are rules of engagement and one has nuclear weapons, how can any of us be sure that those nuclear weapons will not be used? Furthermore, as we know from the orders given to the "Conqueror" in the sinking of the "Belgrano", the Prime Minister is in command of these matters. I simply say to the House that a person who was capable of giving the orders to sink the "Belgrano" because she was faced with a compromise that was politically unacceptable at home, and could not easily refuse the offers of compromise that were coming from Peru and from the United States, is certainly capable of ordering the use of nuclear weapons.

I turn briefly to the veracity of the Government. In answer to my hon. Friend Lord Jenkins of Putney, the Minister responsible, Viscount Trenchard, said: My Lords, I can state categorically that there is no question at all of our using nuclear weapons in this dispute. It has been the long standing practice of successive Governments neither to confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons in any particular place at any particular time."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 April 1982; Vol. 429, c. 778.] The impression given at that time was that there were no nuclear weapons with the task force. We now know that to be untrue.

The Defence Secretary ought to be asked what orders went out from Ministers to the task force from 5 to 8 June 1982 to the effect that politically the Government were unwilling to hazard "Intrepid" or "Fearless" but that they were willing to hazard smaller but less prestigious landing ships. That was the question posed by Mr. Max Hastings in The Observer on 31 October 1982. That question has to be answered.

There is one final question that the Foreign Office has to answer. It arises from a report in The Times of 25 October. I ask the Foreign Secretary what investigation he has initiated in his Department to ascertain the source of the Department's claim recorded in The Times of Monday 25 October 1982 that the Prime Minister's office was informed of the imminent invasion of the Falkland Islands earlier than 31 March 1982.

Some of us have had the good fortune to be called before the Franks committee to give evidence. I believe and I hope that sooner or later—later or sooner—the truth will emerge. It will be much better to tell the truth at an early stage rather than to have it come out, as it assuredly will, over the months and over the years in dribs and drabs.