As Falklanders go to the polls, memory of war looms large

Islanders feel a new confidence in the future, but have not  forgotten the sacrifices of the past, they tell Cahal Milmo

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For Gerald Morrison, the opportunity to express his Britishness came tinged with a particular satisfaction today.

Nearly 31 years ago, he found himself in the no-man’s-land between British and Argentine forces in one of the most bitterly-fought battles of the Falklands War.

As he crouched in his home close to Goose Green during the famously bloody assault by British paratroopers in May 1982, bullets and missiles crashed into the cottage in the darkness from UK forces who believed they were under fire from Argentine soldiers inside.

Three decades later, the 65-year-old farm worker bore no malice towards the Paras or the country which sent them as he – and some 1,674 other Falkland islanders – began voting in the two-day referendum asking the inhabitants of this South Atlantic territory whether they wish to retain British sovereignty.

The plebiscite is all but certain to result in an emphatic majority for the status quo but has sparked a debate about the future of this self-confident and wealthy archipelago.

For Mr Morrison, the spectre of Argentina and its muscular claim on the Falklands was a prime motivation for placing his tick in the “yes” box.

The shadow of the war still falls heavily on Goose Green, a community of about 20 inhabitants in a corner of what the islanders call Camp – the countryside outside the capital of Port Stanley. The polling station where residents cast their ballots today was the same tin-roofed community hall where more than 110 islanders were imprisoned by Argentine forces as the fighting raged.

Recalling the British assault, Mr Morrison said: “I remember hearing a sound like confetti falling as we hid. In fact it was the wallpaper coming off as the bullets came through the walls. It was amazing none of us were shot. The dog lost a tooth in its kennel.

“When the Paras realised we weren’t the Argies they were apologetic. It was an easy mistake to make – it was dark, the middle of a battle. I have nothing against them. They were heroes.”

Describing how an Argentine soldier intent on stealing food had once pointed a gun at his stomach, he added: “Being able to vote yes is my answer back to the Argentines. If they didn’t have a claim on me and where I live, it would be different. I would like us to be friendly – I have nothing against the Argentine in the street. It’s their government I don’t like.”

With nearly two-thirds of the 3,000-strong population living in Port Stanley, the organisers of the referendum go to extraordinary lengths to ensure those in Camp, dotted on farmsteads and remote communities, remain enfranchised.

As dawn broke, a phalanx of 4x4 vehicles equipped as mobile polling stations fanned out from the capital on lengthy tours with stops at road junctions to allow islanders to cast their ballots.

One of the very first, shortly after 8am, was Hattie Kilmartin, 46, who drove from her home in Bluff Cove to meet a mobile polling vehicle in a Land Rover with a Union flag fluttering from its aerial.

She said: “I’m delighted to be voting. I think it is very important to get our message out there to the world and say that we want to be British and, thank you very much all the same, we don’t want to be Argentine.”

The determination of the Falkland Islands government to ensure its vote is unimpeachable on the international stage meant each polling station was scrutinised by members of an independent monitoring team.

As the main polling station in Port Stanley opened at 10am, a senior figure on the islands insisted Falklanders did not want to define themselves negatively as a bulwark of anti-Argentine sentiment.

Dick Sawle, a member of the Falklands’ eight-strong Legislative Assembly, said: “It is really the single-most important vote on the Falklands for many, many years.

“At the heart of these two days are the same reasons why the war was fought in 1982 – the ability of people to decide how they should be ruled. This is an affirmation of what 1982 was about but it is also an expression of self-confidence. We will never forget the past and the sacrifices that were made but a tremendous amount has changed and our future is very positive.”

The legacy of the 10-week occupation and the short but brutal campaign to wrest the islands back from the Argentine junta loom large over the 48-hour voting window.

There is no effort on the part of Argentina’s government to defend that conflict. Alicia Castro, the Argentine ambassador to London, said: “We are extremely critical of the war. But it does not alter the essence of the Malvinas question.”

Those in Goose Green would beg to differ. Mr Morrison said: “We don’t have much to do with the Argentines when they come to visit. They stay away from the village. But we have had the British veterans to stay, including some of the guys who attacked our house. I asked them not to knock so loudly next time.”