Leading Article: The Falklanders have nothing to fear

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THE PROTEST at the weekend by hundreds of Falklanders against the first visit by ordinary Argentines to the islands since the war was understandable but regrettable. The resumption of flights from Chile and the lifting of the ban on visits was part of an agreement signed by London and Buenos Aires last month, the first of its kind since 1982. The concession, which had the blessing of the islanders' representative body, the Falklands Council, marks a significant step towards a normalisation of the situation around the islands.

Obviously the presence of dozens of journalists among the 70 Argentines on the Chilean airlines flight rekindled memories of the shortlived invasion of 17 years ago. It is true, moreover, that Argentina maintains its 160- year-old claim of sovereignty. Equally, however, the Falklanders have not the slightest reason to suspect a deal is being done behind their backs. The military garrison at Mount Pleasant attests to Britain's commitment: it is simply inconceivable, given the strength of feeling on the islands, that any government in London, Labour or Conservative, could hand them over to Argentina against the wishes of the 2,000 inhabitants. Thus the two countries have amicably agreed to differ. Each understands the position of the other, but has no wish to allow the issue to cloud otherwise excellent bilateral relations.

And geography's laws are even more immutable than those of history. The Falklands lie 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, and the islanders' sense of isolation brought about by the suspension of flights by Chile, in the wake of the Pinochet affair, only underlined how their longer term economic future can only lie in close links with the South American continent. Britain, of course, has an important role to play in supervising the sensible exploitation of the fish (and possibly oil) resources in Falklands' waters. But this, too, requires co-operation with Argentina, as well as with Chile and Uruguay. The resumption of flights is a useful move. There is now no reason why a limited number of Argentine airline flights should not serve the islands directly, assuming the commercial demand exists. Nor, as relations continue to improve, should more far-reaching schemes remain taboo.