By Professor Peter Willetts - In March, 1,513 people in the Falklands voted Yes to remaining a British Overseas Territory and only three people voted No. The Yes vote was a remarkable 99.8% of the voters on an exceptionally high turnout of 92.0%. The orthodox view that British voters chose to remain British is not enough to explain the result.
New tables from the Falklands census show that the 11.0% of the referendum electorate were neither born in the Islands nor in Britain. Almost certainly, some 100 to 150 foreign-born individuals, or perhaps more, voted Yes.
This is the conclusion of Professor Peter Willetts from City University, London, who went to the Falklands to monitor the referendum. Today he published a formal report on his findings, as an occasional paper of the South Atlantic Council, which was set up in 1983 to promote understanding between Argentina, Britain and the Falkland Islanders.
The idea of holding a referendum was the Islanders’ response to the increasing pressure they faced from President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, pursuing a sovereignty claim over the Falklands. Professor Willetts concludes she achieved the direct opposite to her intentions. Instead of weakening and isolating the Falkland Islanders, they were strengthened and given a stronger basis for appealing to the global political community for support. Ironically, President Fernandez de Kirchner has guaranteed that there will be no settlement of the dispute during her presidency and she has made it much more difficult for her successors to have any possibility of being trusted as potential negotiating partners. The Islanders have become so united as a political community they should be called a “micro-nation”.
Professor Willetts agrees with the official Referendum International Observation Mission that procedures for a free and secret ballot were scrupulously followed and the result accurately represented the collective choice of the electorate. It cannot be reasonably argued by the Argentine Government that there was any unfair bias against their sovereignty claim. However, he suggests the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) information about the referendum, sent out to every voter, was “highly prejudicial against voting No to support independence”. The three No votes are widely believed to have been pro-independence and not pro-Argentine. Professor Willetts does not support independence or any other specific option for the future of the Falklands, but he recognises the referendum result has forcefully asserted the right of the Falkland Islanders to have their wishes respected. The Islanders will have to be participants if any negotiations about the future of the Islands are resumed.
The impressive turnout was due to two factors, the intense administrative effort and the enthusiasm of the electorate. The main polling stations were open for two days. Small isolated settlements and farms were visited by five mobile polling stations. An aircraft covered the most isolated places and small islands. Two people on Sea Lion Island had cast postal votes but the aircraft still landed there to collect the ballot paper of the third voter. The capital, Stanley, where 83% of the 1,650 people on the electoral registers live, had a carnival atmosphere with flags, posters and large demonstrations to support a Yes vote.
The full results of the latest census in April 2012 were published a month after the referendum. Among the whole census population of 2,840 people, 8.9% do not have British citizenship; 24.8% were neither born in the Islands nor born in the United Kingdom; and 24.0% do not chose British or Falkland Islander, when asked to “describe their national identity”. These figures cover both people with Falkland Islands Status (FIS), who could vote, and immigrants on work or residence permits, who could not vote.
It is not necessary to be a British citizen to have the vote. New immigrants, who have been in the Islands long enough, are able to apply to belong to the community, to gain FIS and to vote. Professor Willetts has invented the term Incorporated Islanders, to cover people who have been granted Falkland Islands Status, who were neither born in the Falklands nor born in the UK. He then asked the census office for an extra table counting the number of Incorporated Islanders. The answer was 182 people from 58 other countries provided 11% of the referendum electorate. Given 8% of the electorate did not vote, then simple arithmetic proves that a minimum of 3% or at least 45 individuals who voted Yes were foreign-born.
The largest minorities were St Helenians and Chileans, but there were also 18 Argentines on the electoral register. These new Islanders are committed to their new country. Over 100 have also chosen to become British citizens, alongside the 42 St Helenian voters who are British. Only one third of the foreign-born Islanders chose their former country as their national identity in the census and two thirds have changed to being an Islander or British or having joint identity. Professor Willetts deduces, not just 45, but most of the 182 Incorporated Islanders voted Yes with the same enthusiasm as the longer established population.
- From ‘A Report on the Referendum on the Political Status of the Falkland Islands’, by the South Atlantic Council as an Occasional Paper.
About the author
Professor Willetts went to the Falklands from 7-15 March, to witness the referendum on behalf of the South Atlantic Council. He was a founder member of the Council, which was set up in December 1983, to promote better communication and understanding between Argentina, Britain and the Falkland Islanders – see www.staff.city.ac.uk/p.willetts/SAC/INDEX.HTM
He is an Emeritus Professor of Global Politics at City University, London, and has studied the United Nations for more than fifty years. He has produced two books on the Non-Aligned Movement and three books on non-governmental organisations in global politics.
Professor Willetts published a South Atlantic Council Occasional Paper on “Distributed Sovereignty and the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Dispute” in June 2012. It is available from www.staff.city.ac.uk/p.willetts/SAC/OP/AB-OP11.HTM
Professor Willetts was writing solely in his own name. The views expressed in South Atlantic Council Occasional Papers are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by all members of the Council.