I am honoured to hold Ministerial responsibility for the Falkland Islands, which has a very special place in the British consciousness and in British history. And next week I am finally able, for the first time, to come down to see the Islands and their people for myself. I could not be looking forward to it more.
These are genuinely historic times for the Falkland Islands. Last year, the people of the Islands made headlines the world over, as pictures of votes being cast in the historic referendum in March were broadcast around the world. With a level of voter turnout that politicians in other democracies around the world can only dream of, the result was a clear expression of your wish to remain an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. It sent a resounding message to the world that the Falkland Islands’ people exist, that you have a voice, and you must be listened to.
It is a pity that the Government of Argentina continues to close its ears to this message, and that it seeks to deny your fundamental right to determine your own future. It is shameful that they should make threats against those involved in legitimate economic enterprise or try to harm those seeking mutual trade and prosperity with the Falklands’ neighbours. A nation of some forty million pressuring a community of three thousand in the twenty first century is not an edifying sight.
But there is another way. Both the Falkland Islands Government and we ourselves have said we wish to sit down with the Government of Argentina to discuss a range of practical South Atlantic issues, including natural resources, communications and confidence building measures. We believe we have much to talk about, and that there is value for all sides – and for the region – in greater co-operation between us. But such meetings cannot, should not, and will not exclude the Falkland Islands Government, who must be party to any discussions affecting their future. Argentina should welcome this opportunity, rather than spurn it.
So let me be clear and unambiguous: if the Government of Argentina believes that hostile rhetoric and threats against the livelihoods of the Falkland Islands people will pressure the UK into negotiating the sovereignty of the Falklands – above the heads of the people whose home it is – then it is sorely mistaken. The British Government will abide by our responsibilities under the UN Charter to respect your right of self determination. Argentina may continue to choose to ignore the views of the Falkland Islanders, but it is a policy doomed to failure.
For despite noises from over the water, the future of the Falklands looks increasingly bright. You have a flourishing economy based on fisheries, agriculture and tourism. You have a significant budget surplus and enviably low unemployment. And you are investing, with ever greater success, in the education of your youth to equip them with the right skills in an increasingly complicated but interconnected world.
In addition to all this you now stand on the brink of great change, as oil production comes closer and closer to reality. I do not pretend that significant challenges do not lie ahead. They do, and these developments will need to be managed carefully. Some difficult decisions will need to be taken. In all of this, though, we will of course continue to stand alongside you.
If 2012 was about remembering the past, then in many ways 2013 was about stating a vision for the future: a hopeful vision with the next generation at its heart. 2014 will hold challenges as you make important decisions about your future economic development. But the Islands are in an excellent state and I believe you can face the coming years with enthusiasm and confidence. I am delighted that I will see the evidence of this first hand very shortly, and I look forward to getting to know these unique Islands for myself.