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Prince Charles and the great Falklands gaffe that wasn't

THE Prince of Wales flew into the Falkland Islands yesterday at the conclusion of what was intended to be a bridge-building visit. He might be forgiven for wiping his brow wearily, after stumbling into a political minefield - not a place where an heir to the throne likes to be.

Such high-profile visits are choreographed from start to finish. Even the spontaneous moments - including Charles's photogenic tango lesson in Buenos Aires last week - are rarely impromptu. The prince's visit to Argentina was potentially charged. Both sides therefore held endless advance discussions.

In his speech at a dinner hosted by President Carlos Menem, he expressed the hope that "modern, democratic Argentina" would in future be able to "live amicably alongside ... another modern, if rather small, democracy just a few hundred miles off your coast". By the time that the speech was delivered, it had been repeatedly faxed to and from St James's Palace, the Foreign Office and the British embassy in Buenos Aires, with multiple tweaking along the way.

To no avail. Vice-President Carlos Ruckauf called Prince Charles a "usurper", and described the speech as "intolerable". In reality, President Menem's office had seen an advance copy. But vice-president Ruckauf was out of the loop - which redoubled his anger. His response forced the prince's nervous advisers to cancel a planned trip to a shanty town the following day, due to "lack of time", making the meticulous schedule sound thrown together at the last moment.

Meanwhile, the Argentine government publicly rebuffed Mr Ruckauf and his "unfortunate views". The foreign minister, Guido di Tella, insisted: "We are very happy with the speech." Shortly before the Prince's departure for Uruguay, President Menem made a point of telephoning him at the British ambassador's residence to say how much he had enjoyed his visit - an act of solidarity that Mr Menem's office was quick to publicise.

Mr di Tella suggested that Mr Ruckauf was speaking "as a politician on the campaign trail", and complained of those who were "playing local politics". In a sense, he was right. This is election year in Argentina. None the less, the fact that Argentine politicians believe that they can win Brownie points with the voters by taking a robust stand against the "usurpers" of the Malvinas islands is itself a reminder of the issues' sensitivity. A protest on Tuesday night, with slogans like "Pirate Prince Go Home", brought only a couple of hundred people. But Mr Ruckauf - who opposes President Menem's attempts to seek a third term - was addressing a larger constituency. Nor was he alone: the influential governor of Buenos Aires province, Eduardo Duhalde, said he refused to meet the Prince because he had "more important things to do". Both knew many voters would approve of such public defiance.

Overall, however, this was a storm in a large teacup. Neither side wants bad blood. The Prince's visit was, in effect, the return leg of a visit by President Menem last year - which also caused unintended explosions. Mr Menem put his name to an article in the Sun, talking of the Falklands war as a conflict "that we deeply regret". The Sun presented the Downing Street-approved words under the headline: "We're Sorry for Falklands". This was a phrase too far, for the Argentines. Menem was forced to declare: "At no time did I say I was sorry. I was simply referring to a regrettable situation."

That mini-drama passed, just as last week's dramas will. Even if there is a change of Argentine government, the process of conciliation is unlikely to be derailed.

The long-term problem may be the reluctance of the Falkland islanders to compromise. Argentina has launched a charm offensive on the Malvinas in the past two years. The Falklanders, who refuse entry to all Argentine passport-holders except relatives visiting war graves, have so far been resolutely unimpressed.