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Special Report: Falkland Islanders prepare to resolve their future

Referendum on British sovereignty an opportunity for 3,000 hardy South Atlantic souls to make their voice heard on the world stage

Thatcher Drive, a neat line of bungalows overlooking the Liberation Monument, encapsulates much of what Falklanders want to tell the world. In one window, a sign reads: “Falkland Islands – British to the core”. Next door, another sign says: “No need to knock. Door open. Come in. Give me a shout”.

On the adjoining main road through Port Stanley a cavalcade of Land Rovers – the vehicle of choice for the islands’ gritty roads – trundled past with Union Flags flying from their aerials and posters in the window reading: “Your country wants you to vote ‘yes’”.

This swirl of friendly patriotic pride, which will also include a display this evening of 50 4x4s arranged on a hillside opposite Stanley with their headlights spelling out “YES!”, will climax on Sunday morning when the 1,672 islanders eligible to vote begin to cast their ballots in the two-day referendum on British sovereignty.

After suffering a bellicose campaign from the Argentine government to cripple the Falklands economy and force negotiations on the ownership of “Las Malvinas” – the Argentine name for the islands – onto the international agenda (talks in which Buenos Aires has bluntly insisted the Falklanders would be irrelevant), this is the opportunity for these 3,000 hardy South Atlantic souls to make their voice heard on the world stage.

With at least 60 reporters and broadcasters from Buenos Aires to Beijing flocking to the islands in the biggest media influx since the Argentine invasion 31 years ago, it is an opportunity the islanders do not intend to miss. An article in the islands’ weekly paper, The Penguin News, suggested today: “When you pass journalists, open your window, smile, wave or give the thumbs up.”

But beneath the pageantry lies a fast-evolving and complex debate. For the older generation, who witnessed Argentina’s 1982 invasion and the islands’ recovery in the hard-fought war commemorated in the Liberation Monument, the memories of the conflict that claimed 255 British and 649 Argentine lives remain fresh.

Bernard Peck, 77, a resident of Thatcher Drive, named after the Iron Lady following the British victory, said: “There is only one way to vote. Everyone knows that it has to be a yes. Everyone has their complaints about daily life but we’ve waited a long time to say this is who we are and this is what we think. I wouldn’t be unhappy if the Argentinians saw this as a democratic two-fingered salute.”

A big majority of yes votes is widely seen as a foregone conclusion and the Falkland Islands government has gone to some lengths to counter sniping from Buenos Aires asserting that its exercise in self-determination is not a PR stunt. It emerged today that international observers monitoring the referendum will come from Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile, whose governments have been sought as allies by Argentina in isolating the islands.

Yet, behind the carapace of red, white and blue, a more subtle and forward-looking conversation is beginning to emerge in these islands, which lie 8,000 miles from London, about what being a Falklander means and whether a flag-waving Britishness is the only long-term option for this increasingly cosmopolitan, wealthy and confident former outpost of semi-feudal sheep farming.

There were no “Vote no” posters to be found in Stanley, which is home to more than two-thirds of the Falklands’ population. Some of those considering a no vote are attracted not by an Argentine passport, which remains anathema to nearly all islanders, but by the lure of something akin to independence for their home, which remains protected by the 1,300-strong British garrison 45 minutes west of Stanley at Mount Pleasant.

Costing £60m or less than 0.5 per cent of the defence budget and complete with RAF Typhoon jets, it is the muscular presence which London insists is necessary to ensure the security of the Falklands – and Buenos Aires complains represents the unnecessary militarisation of the South Atlantic.

In particular, for the generation born since the war, there is a feeling that the Falklands could soon make its own way in the world.

Stood outside the Globe pub in Stanley, a farm worker who gave his name as John, said: “Independence is something that should be our long term goal and I know a fair few people who think we should say no this week because of that. We’re grateful to Britain, incredibly so, but we’ve got our own way of life and our own identity which I think gets swallowed up in the debate about who owns us. We own us and I’d like to see us stand on our own two feet. For example, I’d like us to be able to pay the bill for our defence.”

Part of what drives such sentiments is the fact that Stanley and the wider Falklands, which covers an area similar to Wales, have changed immeasurably since they were fought over at bayonet point in the dark days of 1982.

The qualities which make Stanley a sort of grown-up South Atlantic Balamory with its brightly-coloured roofs and affable inhabitants imbued with a spirit of hard graft and neighbourliness remain. But a stroll around its most southerly capital reveals a town and a population that has prospered from the financial windfall generated by the fishery set up after the war – and is now gearing up for the coming of oil.

Where once there was a single shop, Stanley is bustling with coffee shops and grocery stores heaving with Waitrose goods, Falklands meat and BHS underwear. There is a building site for a new museum and the town’s biggest hotel, the Malvina House, which recently expanded to cope with increased visitors, is now building a separate annexe to meet further demand. Unemployment is pretty much zero and the average household income is £45,000 – nearly double the level in the UK.

Much of this expansion is due to the beast that has built the modern Falklands – squid. Revenues from licences sold to vessels from Europe and the Far East to catch two sought-after breeds of cephalopod contribute anything up to £45m a year the islands’ coffers and fisheries account for anything up to 60 per cent of GDP, not to mention creating a number of “squidionaire” islanders.

But such numbers could become loose change compared to the income generated by the waxy, black crude sitting off the Falklands coast. The first confirmed find, which is due to come on tap in 2017, is conservatively estimated to be worth $4.9bn and is set to presage the establishment of a Falklands sovereign wealth fund along the lines of Norway or Qatar.

But heady talk of “Baa-rain” and hydrocarbon-funded independence generates nervousness among many, not only because a drop commercial oil has yet to be pumped, but also because of the mixed message that any significant no vote might send.

With the eyes of the world upon them and the islands’ flag bedecking every lamp post, Falklanders want to show not only are they broadly British but they – and no-one else – has a say in their destiny.

John Fowler, deputy editor of the Penguin News, said: “This referendum has done two good things: it has politicised a generation which was not politicised, and allowed us to begin the debate about who we want to be. It gets us out of the old bipartite possession debate between Argentina and Britain about who owns the Falklands. Well, we own the Falklands, actually.”