By Ashley Coates. Published: 09/19/2013
“The Argentine foreign minister went to the United Nations and told an astonished audience about our top secret radar establishment, whereas it was in fact the University of Leicester’s array for detecting movement in the ionosphere.”
It’s one of the most important roles in British diplomacy, overseeing the administration of a group of islands 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic. It’s a role steeped in history, the first Governor took office in 1843, beginning of a period of continuous British oversight that was only interrupted in 1982 during the 74 days of Argentine occupation.
Today the Governor has a very modern remit, set out in a series of continually updated acts of Parliament relating to the British Overseas Territories, but it is the tension with Argentina that still generates the greatest amount of attention in the islands.
Nigel’s career in the Foreign Office began three years in the Army. He has since served in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Austria and Hungary. Between 2003 and 2008 he was UK Ambassador to Estonia and later Consul-General, Basra.
He became Governor in 2010 as well as Commissioner for the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the South Atlantic with a total area of roughly 1,500 square miles.
During his time on the Falkland Islands, provocations from Argentina’s government, lead by Christina Fernandez, have often made headline news. The discovery of oil in the region, combined with the Argentine government’s domestic troubles has made the sovereignty of the islands a central feature of President Fernandez’s foreign policy.
Fernandez maintains that British administration of the islands is a legacy of colonialism and has been pursuing bilateral negotiations through the UN as well as initiating a serious of confrontations with British officials.
Even the Pope has been consulted over the Falklands when Fernandez made a visit to the Vatican in March 2013. The Foreign Office maintains that the islanders have chosen to be a British overseas territory and Argentina lost the right to discuss the sovereignty of the islands when the Argentine military junta invaded in 1982. 255 British soldiers and 649 Argentinians and three Falklands civilians lost their lives in the Falkland’s War.
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago covering roughly 4,500 square miles, or about half the size of Wales. It has a permanent population of just under 3000 people, most of which are descendants of British settlers.
There are two major islands, East and West Falkland, surrounded by 776 smaller islands. The Falklands, and the Falkland Sound, are named after Viscount Falkland, the Commissioner of the Admiralty who financed the 1690 expedition that accidentally discovered the islands.
A succession of Spanish, Portuguese and French settlements were established on the islands which were temporarily abandoned by the British due to the demand on its military resources during the Napoleonic Wars.
Today the Falklands are extremely well protected. At any one time, HMS Clyde, together with a frigate or a destroyer accompanied by a Royal Fleet Auxillary vessel are stationed in the region along with four Eurofighter Typhoons and a number of helicopters that are based on the islands themselves.
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What was your route to the role of Governor?
Governorships are essentially Diplomatic Service jobs, although they can be advertised more widely. They come up in the same way that ambassadorships and high commissioner-ships come up. You leave a post at a particular time and you look at the jobs that are coming up in the next year and bid for those that attract you.
Was your specific path through the Diplomatic Service the kind of career you would expect for someone who goes on to be a Governor? Is there a typical path you can identify?
It’s a very, very different job compared with being an ambassador or a head of any other post because you are head of the government, or at least you have a very defined role set out in the constitution. In preparing for that and then deciding whether or not to bid for the job you have to realise that a governorship is a very particular sort of role.
Within the Diplomatic Service, normally your job is to represent the British government to whichever country you’re in and try to persuade them to do things that they might not have realised are in their advantage to do.
In a place like this you are responsible, in a very light-touch manner, to make sure that the show stays on the road. The crucial point about Overseas Territories is if something goes wrong within the territory, as in Montserrat or Tristan da Cunha, then the British government is going to have to pick up the bill.
The position of Governor of the Falkland Islands has existed since 1843, but has changed immensely since that time, what does the Governorship involve today?
There is part of it that is a straightforward figurehead role, for example, during the Liberation Day commemorations I turn up and take the salute at a parade wearing my uniform. On the other hand there is the close detailed work with members of the Legislative Assembly, and with the Chief Executive, on legislative priorities and on how best to take pieces of legislation forward.
Within that, and I think this is true of any diplomatic or civil service job, you’ve got to get out and find out what people are thinking so that you don’t work in a kind of vacuum. I spend as much time as I possibly can away from my desk.
Do you find that there are any conflicts between the more traditional, ceremonial aspects to the role and the modern straight-forwardly diplomatic parts of the job?
The constitution has been revised every ten years or so and I imagine will be revised in a few more years in an attempt to keep the relationship between the Governor and the territory up-to-date and as modern as possible. A long time ago this was a colony so it was run as a colony from the UK. Now the job is to help the economic, social and political development of the islands.
You are also Commissioner for another British Overseas Territory, the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, what does this entail?
It’s a very different job because there’s no permanent population on the islands. There’s a transitory group of about 30-40 people, consisting of scientists, museum staff, and the administrative staff for the islands, that are usually there at any given time. The government is effectively run from here. There’s a room in this building [Government House] which has the main part of the South Georgia government in it, in addition to the offices that are down in South Georgia.
Maintaining what is an absolutely outstanding area of natural beauty and scientific interest is our primary concern. We are encouraging tourism so that it can be part of the process of protecting the islands as it’s easier to get appreciation for a territory worldwide if people can see it. The Frozen Planet series, a large part of which was filmed on South Georgia, has been extremely good publicity for it.
The islands probably aren’t at the top of people’s preferred holiday destinations but they have such a bleak and detached quality to them which must make them very refreshing places to be.
They are, it takes three or four days to get there as you can only get there by sea and when you arrive you really are away from it all. It’s an absolute wildlife photographer’s paradise.
It’s not often noticed but the Falkland Islands are also areas of incredible natural beauty, with 227 different species of bird and large breeding colonies of elephant and fur seals. But in the international sphere the islands tend to be seen primarily in the view of the diplomatic tensions with Argentina.
Yes and your underlying question is absolutely the right one, in the world’s view we must position the islands away from being a source of dispute between the UK and Argentina towards something that’s much more about the islands themselves.
One of the projects we have been working very hard on is the establishment of a South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute down here which the Duke of Kent opened in November 2012. I recently spent a week on the East Coast of the United States talking to various universities about possible cooperation with us.
Conservation is very high-up in people’s minds on the islands and we are very good at it. But there is so much we simply don’t know. Looking out of my window now at the harbour, you can go down and start shifting through the seaweed and find something that hasn’t even been classified or at least no one knows much about. It’s not just obvious things like penguins, whales, albatrosses and petrels, there’s all sorts of less conspicuous species here.
Returning to your career, was it difficult moving away from the big cities you have been based in before to an island with a total population of around 3000 people.
There’s a general point here about what the staff do within the Diplomatic Service. There are people who are fascinated by policy who want to spend all their time in London, Washington or Brussels, and the other main areas of policy formulation.
There are others who are keen on the Arab world or the Far East. I’ve enjoyed postings that have a strong environmental element to them, so when I was in Budapest I got out of the city and spent a lot of time in the countryside.
You have to use the standard unit of size when talking about countries which seems to be Wales, so Estonia is twice the size of Wales and with a population of only 1.3 million people, that was quite a small environment. I don’t know why we talk about Wales, most people have no idea what you are talking about – but the Falklands are half the size of Wales.
Growing up in Cornwall was excellent preparation for coping in a small environment. I had to understand how easily you could mess up things in a small environment by getting interpersonal relationships wrong.
You develop an instinct in those environments, for example, you might need to know that your grandmother borrowed somebody else’s rolling pin in the 1920s and didn’t give it back, therefore the two families aren’t talking. I think it would be much more difficult to do this job if I came from a big city rather than Falmouth.
I always had the impression that the Diplomatic Service posts you wherever they want you but you seem to have been able to pick your own jobs?
When I was first in what was called personnel that era was just about coming to an end. Today, jobs are advertised and you apply for them. Jobs at a senior level are advertised throughout Whitehall so people from other departments can apply for them and some jobs are even advertised outside the service. You can pretty well pick your way through and I’ve been very lucky in being able to do that.
What would you say has been the most testing environment you have found yourself in during your career with the Foreign Office?
It’s difficult to say, they are all testing in different ways, without sounding like the beginning of Anna Karenina. Basra is an obvious one, primarily because people were trying to kill you, there was the threat of rocks being thrown at you and if you went downtown there was always the threat of IEDs by the side of the road. Given that I was in charge of a team of 50 or so civilians then obviously I was concerned about their safety.
I was also working very closely with British forces because there was always a linkage between what you as a civilian were trying to do and what the military was trying to do. It was very helpful that I had spent three years in the army as I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were talking about otherwise.
Were there any particularly disturbing moments when you were in Basra?
No, I don’t think so because when UK forces were in the area there were extremely good rocket batteries. As soon as the alarm went off you dived under your desk and sensible people had cushions, books and cans of Coke in case the alert went on for a long time. You had to be pretty unlucky to get hit as we took a lot of precautions.
Living 8000 miles away, the perspective of most Britons to the Argentine claim on the islands is inevitably quite different to anyone who is living on the Falklands, how have you approached the Argentinian issue?
The important thing about the Argentine position that the world needs to understand is it is a fundamentally flawed one. I think the most important task has been to get the elected representatives of the islanders to travel around the world and set out exactly what the situation really is on the Falklands.
Argentina benefitted from an information vacuum for too long a period from which they were able to get out a lot of spurious, misleading and downright untruthful statements about the history of the islands and the current situation.
When I got here the most obvious thing to do from my perspective was to get information out there, using the diplomatic network to help, and encouraging people to go out and get the message across. We understand that there is a regional imperative for other countries to show solidarity with Argentina but so long as they do so knowing what they are signing up to is not true.
Speaking to politicians in Latin America and elsewhere many are quite surprised when they find out what has really been going on here. The great advantage of our position is that it is backed up by evidence, a lot of which is in Argentine archives, rather than their position which is made up.
You’ve talked about the information side, how much does military posturing play into the situation?
Argentina has decided that one of the things it is going to convince the world is that we are militarising the South Atlantic. It makes up some utterly wonderous stuff on this front, for example, the Argentine foreign minister went to the United Nations and told an astonished audience about our top secret radar establishment, whereas that is in fact the University of Leicester’s array for detecting movement in the ionosphere.
There are other examples, such as their suggestions that our missiles might reach Brazil whereas they have a range of about seven miles and are anti-aircraft missiles anyway. That said, we do have a military presence here, it is designed to deter any potential aggressors. It is at the minimal level required to provide the defence that is necessary and it wouldn’t be necessary at all if Argentina hadn’t invaded in 1982. There was very little in the way of forces before then and we have learnt our lesson.