Thatcher was ready for deal with Argentina to end Falklands crisis

Newly released papers show prime minister was far more flexible than her demands Argentina retreat and reaffirm sovereignty suggested

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 5:47am


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Margaret Thatcher held out hope for a diplomatic deal with Argentina over the status of the Falklands after its invasion of the islands, including the question of sovereignty, as the then British prime minister came under intense pressure from the United States to avoid a military response, British government papers released yesterday show.

Government declarations and rhetoric at the time gave the impression that nothing short of the withdrawal of all Argentinian forces, the reaffirmation of British sovereignty and a return to the position as it was before the invasion would be acceptable. But the papers show Thatcher and her senior ministers were privately adopting a more flexible approach, including allowing a continuing Argentinian presence on the islands, albeit not a military one.

Less than two weeks after the invasion on April 2, 1982, Thatcher described a "diplomatic solution" as being "a considerable prize". She was responding to a plan whereby, in return for withdrawing its troops, Argentina would be represented on an interim commission and on Falkland Islands councils.

Asked in private evidence to the subsequent Franks committee of inquiry about her reaction to the invasion, Thatcher said: "I just say it was the worst, I think, moment of my life", the papers reveal. Asked if she was prepared to cede sovereignty over the islands if the islanders agreed, she replied "Yes".

The disclosure that Thatcher was contemplating a peaceful solution to the dispute, even after the British task force had set sail, is contained in confidential annexes to cabinet minutes released yesterday under the so-called 30-year rule.

John Nott, then defence secretary, said in response to the minutes' release that he had not been against a negotiated settlement if the troops left the islands. "I was always prepared to negotiate. It turned out it was not ever possible, but that's a judgment with hindsight," he said.

In a paper stamped Top Secret, Thatcher is recorded as saying that under a plan being discussed by the US and at the UN, "the withdrawal of Argentine forces would have been secured without military action. Argentina would gain representation on the interim commission and local councils; and a commitment to negotiations to decide the definitive status of the islands by the end of the year, although without any commitment to a transfer of sovereignty."

She added: "Repugnant as it was that the aggressor should gain anything from his aggression, this seemed an acceptable price to pay."

On May 19, two days before British forces landed on the islands, Thatcher told the war cabinet that in a "sincere attempt to reach agreement to avoid bloodshed", Britain had not insisted on what should be its "full and just demands". Any interim deal must ensure there would be "no prejudgment of the longer-term future". The war cabinet noted: "In practical terms, administration mattered more than sovereignty."

Even after the British landings, Thatcher's advisers were considering how to alter the status of the Falklands and their relationship with Britain. "Some kind of association with the UN - or some kind of Anglo-American trusteeship - could meet our requirements if only the Argentinians could be brought to acquiesce to it," Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, advised Thatcher on May 25.

He outlined the advantage in preparing for what seemed an inevitable Argentinian refusal to accept any British offer.

That, he suggested, was to publish an account of the diplomatic activity "as a means of wrong-footing them with international opinion by demonstrating our reasonableness".

In any case, the backlash the government might have faced for doing a deal was avoided by the intransigence of the Argentinian junta. "President [Leopoldo] Galtieri was an alcoholic and apparently incapable of rational thought," ministers were told, according to cabinet minutes on April 22, 1982.