Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Sovereignty and borders of the Falkland Islands are non negotiable. These wonderful islands deserve + will receive full UK support

At half term I visited the Falkland Islands as part of a cross party group of Labour and Conservative MPs to support the Falkland Islands right to self determination and their continued desire to remain British. I met the armed forces stationed there, had multiple meetings with the Governor, the Falkland Island Goverment, and met many locals both to get a better understanding of the Islands wants and needs, and to learn from the way in which the islanders live their life in a very difficult environment. 
I travelled at the invitation of the Falkland Island government. Our purpose was also to meet with the forces commander, and many of the troops, at The Mount Pleasant military base on the Falklands. 
After meeting the troops we agreed that there is no doubt that the troops presence is strongly welcomed by the Falkland Islanders, and the base ensures the continued protection of the islands. It also provides the best possible training ground for the troops, with inter operability a key factor as all three services are based together - a situation that is fundamentally unique in the British Armed Forces. 
I was on a cross party trip of 2 labour and 2 conservative MPs, invited by the Falkland Islands Government. We spent 5 days on the Falklands. I also asked for and got the chance to see how the government provided public services to a population of 3,000 in an area nearly the size of Wales. How they provide healthcare, schooling, and all the services of a county council in such a vast area was fascinating, and I learnt a lot of lessons for use in Northumberland.

The most memorable and moving part of my trip was the day I spent visiting San Carlos Water, and the surrounding sites of several of the key battles in the Falklands conflict. I particularly wanted to pay respects to the life of Able Seaman Derek Armstrong who lost his life when the ship, HMS Ardent, was attacked and then sunk by Argentinian fighter aircraft. 
The background to the conflict is well known but bears repeating. 
After an Argentine invasion in April 1982 a British naval task force was dispatched by Margaret Thatcher to retake the islands. The islands have always made clear their desire to remain British. A total of 255 British lives were lost, with many hundreds more wounded. On 21 May 1982, whilst lying in Falkland Sound, and supporting the offloading of the military, and bombarding the Argentine airstrip at Goose Green, Ardent was attacked by at least three waves of Argentine aircraft. The ship sank the next day after over a days fighting; there was the loss of 22 Lives, including the death of Prudhoe's Able Seaman Derek Armstrong.
On my trip I went to 3 separate war memorials. The main memorial site is in Stanley, where I  paid my respects along with the other MPs; separately, I also trekked up the steep hills surrounding San Carlos Water, with a local expert guide, to lay a separate wreath at the Ardent memorial. The weather that day was genuinely biblical with a howling 50mph gale coming in from the south. 
The Handwritten note left on the Ardent memorial wreath read: "In memory of A/S Armstrong and all who died when HMS Ardent sank during the Falklands Conflict. Wreath lain by Guy Opperman MP, on behalf of the Northumberland constituency of Hexham, and the pupils of Prudhoe Community High School." Pictures of both are below. I also met the Governor and the commanding officer of the Mount Pleasant Base - pictures of both are also below. 

In a 2013 referendum Falklanders voted overwhelmingly to remain a British overseas territory. I made clear both before the trip, and at the time, that I am strong in my continued support for the Falklands - which was welcomed by the Falklands islands government. 
The debate I held in the commons in 2013 is here: and the extent of UK support can be gauged from that debate. 
Recently the Argentinian government has changed, and there are hopes of a thawing in relations, with an end to the trade embargoes and other arbitrary actions by the Argentinians who have repeatedly asserted that the  archipelago, known to Argentinians as the Islas Malvinas, should be returned. That will never happen.
It seems that yesterday the UN appears to have created a preliminary report, as yet unpublished, on the territorial extent of the fishing rights of Argentina and the Falkland Islands. 
I note that the UK government is being asked to clarify this by Mike Summers, chair of the FI legislative assembly, who I met when I was out there. The islanders should know that on this, as in all matters, they have our full support in the UK. There is no doubt that fishing is a massive part of the Falkland Island economy. Sadly I suspect the UN are at fault. Indeed the PM has responded overnight on this point here:

Locally, I am going shortly to the Prudhoe Community High School and will explain details of the trip to the senior students. Every year the High School awards the Derek Armstrong award to a pupil in memory of their former pupil who lost his life serving his country.