Sunday, 21 February 2016 16:18

Falkland Islands- a poignant but a remarkable trip

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I have just returned from an very, very useful and quite fascinating visit to the Falkland Islands. I was fortunate enough to have been chosen from the vastly over-subscribed trip organised by the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. In my role as Front Bench spokesperson on Defence, it is essential I gain an understanding of life in the military and this I thought this was too great an opportunity to miss. I wasn't wrong.

In parliament we very often get access to the Top Brass, which is great but rarely do we get to meet and experience what life is like for the rank and file of our military. This was my primary motivation in going to the Falklands along with four other members of the AFPS, Tory MPs Flick Drummond, Ranil Jayawardena and Antoinette Sandbach and the Lib Dem, Baroness Smith of Newnhan.

Given that we were going to be working and getting our hands dirty aboard boats, in engineering workshops, on building sites, on battlefields and generally mucking in as much as we could, and given that the weather in the South Atlantic, even in summer can be pretty wild, we were all given our own army-issue kit to wear.

The flight to the Falklands leaves from RAF Norton and including a refuelling stop at Ascension Island takes approximately 18 hours but as we were only there for a limited time, we didn't waste any of it. So after a formal welcome and briefing we got to it.

The Falkland Islands are much larger than I thought they were. In terms of Argyll & Bute, they are about 50% bigger at approximately 11000 sq km but with a population of just over 3000; of which 90% live in the town of Stanley on the western edge of West Falkland. Stanley is roughly 40 miles from the UK base at Mount Pleasant.

The base at Mount Pleasant is enormous and is home to all three services but mainly the RAF. It's there that four Typhoon fighter jets are permanently stationed. There is an army presence too as the vast and wild Onion Range on the north of the island provides some of the best training facilities available anywhere for the infantry.
I was keen to meet up with the Royal Navy and it was just my luck that on the day we arrived HMS Clyde, which is permanently stationed in the South Atlantic set sail for South Georgia.
I did however manage to get out on one of the support tugs and to speak to the RN engineers currently stationed on the Falklands.
It seems that most military personnel are posted to the South Atlantic for between four and six months and it was fascinating spending the day finding out what they do, listening to their opinions and mucking where I could.

The overwhelming majority of those stationed in the Falklands are full-time but I was lucky enough to run into a group of reservists; Scottish reservists. I had been up on the Onion Range with the Royal Anglian Regiment watching the infantry train when on my return I bumped into Ria McGowan from West Lothian who was commanding a team of Royal Engineer reservists from Scotland and Northern Ireland who had been posted to the Falklands for a fortnight to turn a large patch of peat bog into a helicopter landing pad.
Among Ria's team was a police officer from Stirling, a leisure centre worker from Coatbridge, a tax official from Belfast and a student from Bannockburn.
It became a bit of a running joke on the trip that everywhere we went I'd meet fellow Scots and we'd spend so much time talking, I was always the last one back in the Land Rover.

The geography of the Falkland Islands is very strange. It has everything. Long flat stretches of grassland which is home to hundreds of thousands of sheep. There are also area consisting of nothing but huge rock fields that are almost lunar. And there are large mountains. Weather-wise, it is constantly windy, hence there are virtually no trees on the island. We visited in their summer months and although we were very lucky with the weather, it was windy and when the rain did come; I was on the exposed Onion Range at the time, it was like having gravel thrown on your face at 60mph. This is a hostile place even in summer. In the depths of winter I can only imagine what it is like.

I also had the opportunity to visit the area around Darwin and Goose Green, one of the battlefields of the 1982 conflict. During the in-depth battlefield tour we were given military maps and walked through exactly what happened when the army moved on the Argentinian-held position at Goose Green. It was absolutely fascinating but let's never forget though, that a lot of young men died here and as well as visiting and paying respects at the memorial to the British soldiers who died, we also paid a very poignant visit to the Argentinian graveyard in the hills above Darwin. The upkeep of this graveyard is the responsibility of the families of the soldiers buried here and they receive no help at all from their government to look after it.

Reminders of the conflict are everywhere on the islands but it is still something of a surprise to see signs warnings of minefields still scattered across the Falklands.

Apart from some remarkable scenery, the Falklands also enjoys some amazing wildlife and I was lucky to see numerous Penguin colonies, Dolphins by the score and I even stumbled across an enormous seal sunning itself in the long grass.

Our final day on the islands was spent with the Falkland Islands Government. The Falkland Islands are a British Overseas Territory, which means that although they are basically self-governing and autonomous, the UK government are responsible for foreign affairs and defence.
The Government is made up of 8 elected representatives and they are responsible for everything, bar defence and foreign affairs.
The mainstay of their economy is fishing. The government issues licences to factory ships from around the globe who will fish in their waters before processing their then catch and taking it all over the world. In fact, something like 80% of Calamari we consume comes from the waters around the Falklands. Amazingly however, there is no fish processing on the island and Stanley doesn't even have a fish n' chip shop.

Another staple of the island economy is the export of wool. It was many years ago the most important part of the economy and the position of the wool farmers was all-powerful. Things have changed dramatically but they still export vast amounts of wool all over the world out of Port Stanley.

Tourism, although small at the moment is growing in economic importance, particularly the visiting cruise ship market. There is little infrastructure to support any other form of tourism on the island as Stanley has only one hotel and the island has very few Tarmac roads. Also there is no right to roam on the islands and although a paradise for walkers, ramblers and campers, every inch of the island is privately owned and permission has to be sought in advance to access anywhere.

By far the most important economic development in the last decade or so has been the discovery of oil in the waters around the Falklands and contrary to what many believe, the UK government nor the UK treasury has any claim on the money generated by its production. Right now, licences have been issued but as the global oil price is relatively low right now, the wells haven't started pumping oil yet. When the oil does start to flow and the revenue from it reaches the islands, thing could change dramatically for the islanders. It is going to be a very interesting time in the history of the Falkland Islands.

We left the Falklands at 1100am on Friday to head home from what had been, as I said earlier an absolutely fascinating few days getting to meet with and work with those UK service men and women stationed out there and to get a better understanding of life for the islanders.
As on the way out, we stopped off at Ascension Island to refuel and in the two hours we had to kill, we were taken to one of the beaches to watch the Giant Turtles laying their eggs on the sand.
It really was an incredible end to a remarkable trip.