Labour MP and defence select committee member Thomas Docherty spent much of last week in the Falkland Islands, visiting the base of service personnel there and meeting the islanders.
HuffPost caught up with him for a Q&A about his experiences.
Tell us how you got there, the flights and how long they were?
We travelled in what they call "the air bridge", but it’s basically an Airbus operated by Titan Airways. It's a chartered flight used for MoD personnel and the Islanders.
From Brize Norton you fly to Ascension Island, or "Azzy" as they like to call it. That's eight-and-a-half-hour flight, you refuel there and then you bounce down to the Falkland Islands. You leave close to midnight; you fly during the night to Azzy, get out, have breakfast. Then you fly to the Falklands.
It's quite strange to think of islanders sharing a plane with soldiers...
Well as an overseas territory we support them on their health service. They have a hospital in Stanley but if you require specialist treatments, cancer, children’s medicine, they come back to the UK. So there are a number of seats put aside for the islanders, so there are normally 15 to 20 islanders on the plane as well.
And what things were you unprepared for when you reached the islands?
At this time of the year it’s the Falklands' summer, and one of the biggest hazards that they face in the Falklands is forgetting there's a very thin ozone layer. One of the things they keep having to remind you is that there might well be cloud cover, but you’ve got to keep the cream on. Some of the guys got stuck in the bad weather before we got there. They came back to the base all sunburnt because they forgot to take their sun cream.
I have a probably false impression that the islands are quite rugged...
It’s just open countryside and hills. Not as many sheep as they claim. If there are a million sheep there, I didn’t see them. It’s just beautiful, stunning bays.
The downside is that the Argentineans didn’t keep a very accurate record of the mines they laid. So some of the bays like Yorke Bay, just outside Stanley, a beautiful white beach, absolutely stunning – has big signs up – absolutely fenced off and is out of bounds.
Penguins are too light to set off the anti-personnel mines, but seals aren’t, and seals eat penguins. The seals have learnt over 30 years to stay away but what used to happen was they’d come and go “Ah ha, big pile of penguins, dinner-time!”
So the seals were unwittingly serving as a mine clearing operation, but they’ve wised up to it?
Yeah, and trying to clear the mines is an ongoing challenge for the islanders – particularly down by the beaches, the sand shifts so that dunes that existed 30 years ago may have moved 20 meters. The estimation was if they were to try and do a full on clear of the whole thing, it’d cost millions.
And there’d be an eco-system impact because you'd have to send diggers in and literally scoop up all the sand on a beach and sift it. The environmental impact of that is huge. They’re talking to the NGOs – the WWF, the RSPB and others about whether it's better to simply have these areas, that you basically cordon off forever.
It’s depressing that 30 years on they’re still living with it. Until the embargo went up at the end of the year, they were rarely in the news.
My personal view is that I don’t know where Argentina thinks it's going. My more measured view is that probably there is a misunderstanding between the United Kingdom and Argentina as to what we’re talking about. There is an inevitable culture clash that we see as a three-point dialogue. We see as the United Kingdom, the Falkland Islands people and Argentina.
Argentina doesn’t seem to think that. Argentina thinks it’s a two-way dialogue between them and us and the Falkland Islands don’t have a say in it.
If I was being charitable, it’s because Argentina sees them as our colony and they don’t understand that they’re an autonomous independent local government and that any decision about the future of them has to be made by them. 30 years of government consensus red and blue is that we’re not saying the Falkland Island cannot transfer to Argentinean sovereignty but its not our call, its their call. Argentina doesn’t seem to think that.
And given 90% of the islanders want the status quo to remain, the impasse isn't likely to go away?
It’s not even as if there is a move for independence. UK governments have consistently said that if any of our overseas territories wish to go to independence, provided they could meet the government requirements that we can expect – we’d support that.
We recognise that the UK government takes a slightly different view and that’s perfectly acceptable. Overseas territories aren’t really political – there are no real votes in it. It’s a philosophy about what we’re trying to achieve. What Argentina doesn’t understand is that we want the Falkland islanders to be able to make their own decisions rather than us having to make them for them.
There is this view among some people that Britain could go a bit further and enshrine that self-determination more firmly into law. Then we’d have a stronger case with the U.N...
I’m not a diplomat; some might say that’s a good thing. My sense is from talking to Congressmen, and with other nations as well – amongst the Permanent Five, we’ve all got overseas territories. We all understand – France has got them, we’ve got them, and America certainly has got them. Our Russian and Chinese friends have got them in different ways. I don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s amongst other nations.
The Commonwealth is quite interesting because most commonwealth countries support the Falklands because they’re part of the Commonwealth. All the sovereign nations have been formally part of the empire.
The problem lies in central and south America where they had a different path to independence and they had to fight in most cases. They misunderstand the Falklands and believe that we are somehow holding them back or keeping hold of them. You’re right that’s where there is a real benefit. If it can be put into law to say this is a sovereign self-determination to remain part of the U.K.
What were your days like?
We visited HMS Clyde – a protection vessel. One of its primary roles is to make sure there is no illegal fishing. It also acts as a patrol vessel between South Georgia and the Falklands. They were sailing to South Georgia on a regular visit. We then spent some time with the air people with Typhoons, search and rescue, Hercules as well.
We spent a lot of time with the families. Seeing what their accommodation was like. We forget that there are 35-40 families of service personnel living for up to 2 years there. One of the great challenges the primary school has on the base is they’ve got to educate these children, the children have got to form some friendships and relationships but at the same time the teachers have got to be mindful that those kids – 6,7,8 year olds - are going to have to leave their friends and go back to the U.K when their mummy or daddy’s tour comes to an end.
That is a real challenge. Can you imagine being away from home for 2 years – you might be 5 or 6 years old, you make your first school friends and then it's quite difficult for the teachers to unpick them.
What's daily life like for the service personnel?
One of our drivers was getting married in June. His posting is paying for his wedding. The reality is you’ve not got a lot to spend your money on there. You go along there - for 6 months in his case – as an RAF transport driver. He’s away from his fiancée for 6 months. You get up, at 6. You finish at half 6 in the evening.
After that you either go to the bar or the gym. Because they’re better than you or I, they go to the gym. They don’t spend a lot of money in that sense. It’s got a cinema on the site, a bowling alley. A library. A café.
There was a conscious decision made to put the base 35 miles away from Stanley, specifically so Stanley dint turn into an arm town. There is a convenience shop on the base where you’ve got Waitrose goods and Iceland goods but they’ve got stickers over the prices. For example a small pack of weetabix is £4.20, if you went into Tesco’s in Britain you’d pay £1.80.
Did you go into Stanley?
We spent a day in Stanley. We met the governor. We met the chamber of commerce and the MLA.s there was a dinner that evening the governor hosted with the MLAs so we could talk. Stanley has a population of about 2000 so it has got a couple of nice pubs, a hotel. It has a nice bay in the summer but there is not a lot of there.
We went up to Goose Green. If you know your Falklands conflict history that is where a lot of ships were sunk. Our landings were unopposed because our special forces had taken the hills. The Argentineans came down this hillock. You come down the hills. You had our destroyers and frigates in a very narrow channel. Argentineans going at them and tragically the vast majority of the deaths were associated with the ships. Everyone remembers Coventry and Sheffield, Antelope and so on.
What was quite eerie was it was a beautiful summer’s afternoon. The bay is not much wider than the Thames in central London, It’s a wee bit wider but not much. Out there are 4 or 5 vessels under the water – which are war graves. But you wouldn’t know. That is really eerie.
So we took the opportunity to lay wreathes both at Stanley and goose green at the memorials there. That brings it into focus. There was a human cost and we shouldn’t forget. It wasn’t just 250 something UK personnel who lost their lives but 650 Argentineans.
They had no choice. The vast majority were conscripts. They hadn’t even joined up, they had been conscripted in. they weren’t that well fed. Many of them apparently fought bravely. But they hadn’t had much choice going into it. One of the impressive things is the respect the Falkland islanders show to Argentinean families when they come over now.
When they come over to Stanley now, they’re very well treated. People make sure they get… if someone indicates that they’re here to visit a relative or if there is no grave to visit, the islanders make a real effort to make sure they get the respect that is due.
How will your visit inform your work on the Commons Defence Committee?
I think there are two parts to it. One was about understanding what was going on, what our commitments are and what is involved. That is helpful in the round. Maritime surveillance is an inquiry we are about to launch – that is part of it. Carrier strike is a big debate. Our deployment and the welfare of families. One of the big things we took away is when we talk about service accommodation is it's not just in Germany, not just the U.K. You’ve got these postings out there. So yes that will publically feed into the work we do.
Separately the big thing going forward and the Foreign Office needs to look at this, is hydrocarbons and gas. It is fairly well-known that there have been some promising findings there. How do we help the Falkland islanders tap those reserves? They’re worth billions. They don’t have the capability in-house to manage a multi-billion oil and gas fields; we’re going to have to help them do it. How they license those fields, how they make sure islanders benefit and so oil and gas companies don’t come in and exploit them.