Photo courtesy History Collection
Irish passports had special uses long before Brexit. Forty years ago, at the onset of the Falklands War when the Argentines were refusing entry to single passport carrying Brits, I had the original wheeze of using mine to gain accreditation to Buenos Aires for BBC TV News ( ok ,so did others who discovered they had an Irish granny). So with Roisin McAuley joining the Newsnight team and David Capper for Radio News, BBCNI was well represented in the southern hemisphere for an epically strange little war, so different from our own 8,000 miles away.
I had a reporter’s job to do. The Argentinians were people with whom we had absolutely no personal quarrel, rather the opposite; but if it came to a fight I didn’t want my side to lose. I felt a certain amount of apprehension. . The military dictatorship that embarked on this risky enterprise had the sinister practice of kidnapping political dissidents, stuffing them into the boot of Ford Falcons, and dropping them from helicopters into the River Plate below. They became Argentina’s Disappeared, the human rights cause which helped dislodge the junta as much as defeat in the Falklands War. I had no ambition to share their fate. It could get ugly if things were to go wrong for them.
On the other hand traces remained of Argentina as a member of the “unofficial Empire” supplying beef to Britain. From my hotel bedroom I stared out at a replica of Big Ben. A kind of politesse was in operation whereby we would not officially declare ourselves as BBC. Greased by bribes of several hundred $ US a pop, I sent reports up to New York as “NBC2” from the BA TV station the BBC had helped set up for the 1978 World Cup,
We had little access to the junta’s strategy such as it was; nor did anyone else, it seemed. We were pretty sure confusion and improvisation reigned. In the early days before the task force arrived in the area, we supplied the only pictures of the Falklands occupation lifted from their own patriotic coverage. This was when people back home were relying on heavily censored reports read out by a lugubrious MoD spokesman. We covered at a distance the Pope’s visit hurriedly arranged to balance an already planned visit to Britain. Another papal appeal for peace was ignored.
Despite the inevitable official patriotism, the invasion of the Falklands – to the Argentinians the “Malvinas” named after a French mariner Malouines for some reason – evoked little excitement in the streets of the vast and elegant capital. At one official rally, the greatest racing driver of his generation Juan Manuel Fangio turned up. When I doorstepped him he turned pale and hesitant, obviously reluctant to offend either Argentine patriots or his many fans in Britain. I thought if they could turn out a world champion like Fangio they could give the British a run for their money in this war.
As the conflict hotted up it was quickly clear that the task force was horribly exposed to the Argentine air force’s Super Etendards, US Skyhawks and their own home made nippy little Pucaras. Their air force produced a line of pilots for interview. It was clear they were having the time of their lives, Latin versions of The Few in the Battle of Britain, sporting woolly flight jackets, cravats, brilliantined hair. waging a Real War! I labelled the interview package They Have Their Heroes Too. It never saw the light of day. Unknown to me at the time, the BBC was taking heavy stick from Thatcher for reporting the facts evenhandedly and referring on air to “the British” rather than “us”.
The Argentine military we had dealings with took a more detached view. They would sometimes join us to listen to our relay of the 9 O’Clock News, in the spirit of connoisseurs of a medieval joust.
When the end loomed, the signals came first from Argentine TV News. They ran sequences of troop withdrawals from the mountain positions above Port Stanley, compressed into a single day. From their pictures it looked like a cake walk although as we now know it was anything but. Like Waterloo, it was a close run thing, partly due to a huge strategic mistake.
On 27th March 2022 Channel 4 broadcast the TV documentary “Falklands War: The Untold Story” with the strapline “On the 40th anniversary of the conflict, senior commanders and ground troops reveal how a series of mistakes nearly cost Britain its hard-won victory over Argentina in the South Atlantic”. The programme featured heavy criticism of Wilson, with one interviewee describing him as a “bloody idiot” presiding over a “bloody shambles”. Another interviewee (a fellow brigadier) recounted how when Wilson proposed that his brigade should walk to Fitzroy, one of his colleagues had replied “Brigadier, are you pissed”?
In the shaky Argentinian footage, I saw the clear image of a British officer shaking hands with an Argentinian opposite number. Surely this was at least a truce? Not a word about it had been said at that moment. We had as a prime source the news editor of the navy paper Clairin who had an inside track to the junta, in particular to the admiral who despised the junta’s chief Galtieri. “ It is surrender, I stake my life on it. “ On his judgement I did, so to speak, likewise. I voiced the news that “an agreement has been signed on the islands” over pictures of a Brazil World Cup match. British confirmation soon followed. Thatcher ordered “Rejoice, rejoice.”
Before departing Argentina we threw a party for all the Hispanics of several nationalities who had helped us. I laid on several cases of the excellent local Baron B champagne. For entertainment we had the TV on relaying from Montevideo 100 miles across the Plate the Spain v Northern Ireland third round match in the World Cup. Argentina was boycotting the transmission of any British match so the picture wobbled. Surely an Hispanic walkover, a small consolation for hurt feelings?
Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the match. I ended up on the floor, screaming.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London