Editorial: Spots of conflict

Last updated 05:00 14/01/2013

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OPINION: Two scenes of violence and unrest - the Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland - have made the headlines again in recent weeks.

The two are entirely unrelated apart from the fact that the years of bitterest conflict were in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was the British prime minister.

But the stirring of new rumbles of discontent in both are a reminder that some disputes continue to rankle beneath a deceptive surface calm. There is some consolation, though, that any outbreak of the murderous wars of the past is inconceivable.

In Northern Ireland, the strife has largely been confined to sectarian thugs beating one another up and assaults on police officers, with no sign of guns and bombs. The Falklands fuss has so far been nothing more than a war of words.

Despite its comprehensive defeat by Britain in the war of 1982, Argentina has, of course, never given up its claim to sovereignty over the Falklands, which it calls the Malvinas.

In its view, the islands were taken from Argentina in "a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism". The Argentinians living there, it says, were expelled by the Royal Navy and in "a population implantation process" typical of colonisation, replaced with Britons.

This is a highly tendentious account - the population was not expelled and the facts are far more complex - but the Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, chose to remind the British of it with an open letter to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, published in London newspapers on January 3.

Cameron replied as the British always do to such claims, with the perfectly reasonable observation that in the 180 years since Britain took control, the residents of the islands have continually regarded themselves as owing allegiance to Britain (in the last poll, by almost 100 per cent) and that until they indicated otherwise, that was the way things would stay.

Kirchner's motive in raising the matter now was almost entirely owing to her need to divert attention from an appalling domestic economy and shore up her flagging popularity. There has been talk of the prospect of oil in the region lending urgency to the sovereignty question, but there is no reason for the two issues to be linked. The issue of resources was, until Argentina withdrew recently, already being dealt with in separate negotiations.

Kirchner's motive, however, is the reason matters will go no further, at least for the foreseeable future. Kirchner may be a populist and nationalist but, unlike the generals of 1982, she is not a fascist dictator. She cannot ignore her supporters. She quite simply cannot enter a war the country could not afford. It would require sacrifices the people, already financially burdened, would not accept.

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The strife in Northern Ireland has been running for a month now. It has arisen over a symbol of sovereignty - the union flag - which the Belfast administration recently decided to fly only on ceremonial occasions, roughly 20 days a year. The nightly marches that have taken place since that decision seem to be getting more violent - 29 policemen were injured at the weekend - but they appear to consist of leaderless rabble drawing on the large numbers of unemployed in the region.

The once-violent leaders of the times of the Troubles, now largely in government, have done nothing to encourage it. The question is whether they will show the leadership necessary to stop it.

- The Press

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