As their parents head to the polls, the youth of the Falkland Islands are more content than ever
Children growing up on the islands enjoy their carefree lives and struggle to understand why there is a need for change
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Saturday 09 March 2013
As the Union flag bunting was being hung from cars and shops on the eve of the Falklands referendum today, it was not just the adult islanders who were pondering the weighty issues of identity and future.
A few hundred metres from the polling station in Port Stanley where most Falklanders will come to cast their votes on retaining British status stands the community school, where the islands’ youngsters are every bit as alive as their parents to the kaleidoscopic questions of geo-politics and their South Atlantic lifestyle.
Sat some 8,000 miles from their plugged-in peers in celebrity-fixated, consumer-orientated Britain, the 700 or so under-18s in the Falklands might be assumed to look on with a degree of envy at the bright lights of the UK and the opportunities open to British youth.
After all, the islands’ only cinema is at the British garrison 45 minutes out of Stanley along a pot-holed track and distractions taken for granted elsewhere – from glitzy nightclubs to data-heavy websites such as BBC iPlayer – are unavailable or impractical.
When The Independent on Sunday met students from the school, a picture emerged of worldly teenagers robustly content with their life on these islands (from the absence of crime to the annual ritual of “lamb marking” or castrating young sheep) and puzzled by the antics of the lady they refer to as Cristina – Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Sorrel Pompert Robertson, 15, said: “It is awesome living here. It might be different but I am never bored. There are no real complaints about the lack of cinemas or things to do because there’s such amazing freedom here.
“You can go out to Camp [the countryside beyond Stanley] and have complete freedom. Everyone knows each other and some of my best friends are years older than me. I love the heritage of the islands. We don’t feel like we miss out. You don’t miss what you don’t have.”
With a growing population, the authorities on the islands invest heavily in education, offering levels of support for higher education simply unaffordable in Britain. The number of pupils attaining five or more good GCSEs leapt from 41 per cent in 2006 to 73 per cent in 2010. The recently-completed new junior school is having to expand further to accommodate growing numbers and there is generous provision for teenagers studying beyond 16, who are sent with all expenses paid to study for their A-levels at fee-paying schools in Winchester.
University courses are also funded and the number of young Falklanders embarking on degrees in Britain has risen from 17 to about 30 per annum over the last five years.
Such investment is repaid by the high number of young Falklanders sent abroad who then return to work and live on the islands.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a strong sense of contentment among the students. Louise Williams, 13, said: “I don’t really want change. Everything is perfect as it is right now.”
But what then of the looming matter of the referendum that is so exercising the adult population of the islands and has brought the world’s media flooding onto the streets of Stanley?
This is a generation for whom the dark days of the 1982 war with Argentina are the stuff of history. But it is a history of which they are keenly aware and they are not immune to the insecurities generated by the bellicose noises from Buenos Aires - there is a candid admission that they have been raised to consider Argentina or, more to the point, its rulers as an enemy.
The students all said they would voted yes in this weekend’s ballot if allowed, expressing a concern that failure to produce anything other than an emphatic mandate for retaining British sovereignty could have unpleasant consequences.
Matthew Hansen, 13, said: “We will have a better sense of security with a yes vote. If we said ‘no’ there would be problems. Argentina and Britain would fight over us.”
But there was bemusement rather than genuine fear at the strategy from Buenos Aires to dismiss the Falklanders as transient landgrabbers with no rights over land inhabited for nine generations and pressurise their economy with export embargoes and measures such as bans on cruise ships.
Louise said: “It is a bit childish really. I don’t know what they are trying to achieve – it seems a silly way to do things. It is not a friendly act.”
With an Argentine mother, Sorell was the first to express sorrow at what most Falklanders see as the pointless obduracy of the current position of Argentina and optimism that the hardline will be eventually abandoned. She said: “I like Argentina, of course. It is just their government and Cristina. There is no real military threat from them.
“But there will be no friendship with Argentina until they accept that we are who we want to be. If they could accept that then we could start building alliances.”
Even for its youth, living on the Falklands brings with it an innate sense of the tectonic political plates that define their relationship with the outside world. There was scepticism, for example, at suggestions the islands could eventually seek independence from the UK.
But such matters are not really what they enjoy talking about.
Instead, like any other teens, they are more enthused by subjects such as the books they read during the islands’ long winter nights (Michael Morpurgo seemed a favourite), football and a current exercise craze from America known as Insanity.
The youth of the Falklands seem, above all, remarkably at ease with themselves. As Louise put it: “We are just proud of where we are from.”
Many on the islands will be hoping the same sentiment becomes just as apparent when the ballots of nearly 1,700 grown up Falklanders are counted on Monday night.
Academic removed as election observer over impartiality
A British academic named as an observer for the referendum ballot had his status revoked today after the Falklands authorities ruled he had infringed impartiality requirements.
Peter Willetts, a retired professor of politics from City University in London, addressed a public meeting in Stanley last night backing the right of islanders to self-determination but arguing the Falklands still faces having to change its political status to satisfy the United Nations.
The Falklands Islands Government said Prof Willetts’ status had been withdrawn because of rules stating that observers, who are granted access to polling stations and the count, must exhibit political neutrality. A spokesman added: “The decision had nothing to do with the views held by Professor Willetts. Whether he was for or against, the outcome would have been the same. The rules are very clear on the requirement of neutrality.”
Prof Willetts could not be reached to comment on the decision. He did not form part of the separate Referendum International Observer Mission monitoring the poll.
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