From our archive: when Rob met Maggie

By Joanne Black In From Our Archive

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General Belgrano after being torpedoed, photo AP

NZ LISTENER 31 March 2012, #3751, p27

Politics sometimes has a way of making even the most serious events farcical. Gerald Hensley vividly recalls one such occasion in April 1982. He was head of the Department of the Prime Minister (“‘Permanent Head’ was the correct title but it sounded so Yes Minister that I always just said ‘head’”) when the Government of Robert Muldoon decided to expel the Argentine ambassador in response to Argentina’s April 2 invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Many people, including Denis Thatcher, husband of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, admitted later that when they first heard the news of the invasion they had to look up the Falklands in an atlas.

The remote and windswept islands lie east of Argentina in the South Atlantic Ocean. They are claimed by Argentina as its territory, although the islands have been permanently occupied by Britain since 1833, and intermittently before that since the early 1600s. In April 1982, in a move that caught Britain by surprise, Argentina landed troops and armoured personnel carriers on various points of the Falklands, quickly capturing Port Stanley, the rudimentary capital.

News and photos of their early success were greeted jubilantly in Argentina, where the ruling military junta was keen to distract attention from its own unpopularity and a worsening economic crisis. In Britain, the humiliation of being caught unprepared was stinging, particularly when Argentina provided photos of British Marines surrendering. British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington (who reportedly said, “oh f—”, when he heard the news) promptly resigned. In New Zealand, Muldoon didn’t appear to share the doubts that some held about the conflict being a remnant of colonialism, and quickly summoned the ambassador to Parliament.

“It was a slightly farcical occasion, but often in government things go like that,” recalls Hensley, who is now retired and living in Wairarapa. His memoir, Final Approaches, picks up the story when the Argentine ambassador arrived at Muldoon’s office, with the tipped-off media waiting outside anticipating the ambassador’s expulsion.

“It was a solemn occasion,” Hensley writes in his memoir. “Muldoon launched into his introduction: ‘Ambassador, I would not like you to think that what I am about to say is in any way a reflection on you personally …’

“He was halted by anxious cries from the ambassador who, it became apparent, could not understand English. A Spanish interpreter was hastily sought from the Foreign Ministry. She took 20 minutes to arrive. We sat there in awkward silence, watching the sun move over the carpet, from time to time exchanging sickly smiles with the ambassador. The sound of the media crush on the other side of the double doors came intermittently like the roaring of surf. Finally the interpreter was ushered in, a little breathless. We all leant forward and the PM began again, ‘Ambassador, I would not like you to think …’

The ambassador was duly expelled, in English and Spanish, and Hensley says the reciprocity that guides diplomatic exchanges was avoided, “because we didn’t have an ambassador in Argentina so it was a free hit on our part”. In the UK, journalist Derek Round was London bureau chief of the New Zealand Press Association and he found the mood in Britain, particularly as portrayed in the media, jingoistic and unpleasant.

There were a few headlines from the time that became famous. The Sun produced “STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA”, when reporting on negotiations over the islands. Newsweek magazine, over a cover picture of the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes heading for the crisis zone, ran the headline, “The Empire Strikes Back”.

The Sun, May 4 1982

Most famous was The Sun’s front-page “GOTCHA”, after the Argentine light cruiser General Belgrano was hit by torpedoes fired from a British nuclear-powered submarine while, controversially, the Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone Britain had declared. In all, 323 men were killed in that attack, almost half the total of 649 Argentine lives lost in the Falklands campaign.

New Zealand may have had an indirect role in that sinking, because the British submarine fleet had been plagued by communications difficulties after arriving in the South Atlantic and for some of its orders relied on the New Zealand navy’s communications facility, HMNZS Irirangi, using transmitters and aerials to relay communications from the Royal Navy to its fleet. A submariner aboard HMS Conqueror, which fired the torpedoes that hit the Belgrano, wrote in a diary published later that the submarine had received “traffic via New Zealand” before receiving the order to sink the warship, although whether that particular order was relayed via the Irirangi is not clear.

Round, now retired and living in Whanganui, says he reported what was happening and being said at the time, sending his stories back to New Zealand newspapers, which avidly used the material, “but the whole atmosphere to me, as a New Zealander, was very depressing and distasteful, particularly the sinking of the Belgrano with all those young Argentinean lives lost when all the evidence shows that the Belgrano was actually sailing out of the zone at the time”.

Efforts to find a diplomatic solution continued, but Round came to believe that Thatcher, whose popularity as well as that of her Government swelled enormously during the crisis, did not want one. “By any standards in the history of diplomacy there should have been a diplomatic solution,” he says. “The lessons of World War I and World War II clearly hadn’t been learnt by the British Government in my view so it’s just a very good thing that the most New Zealand did was offer the use of a frigate, though even that was debatable given our relations with Argentina at the time. Perhaps we should have just kept right out of it.”

Round says he felt strongly about it because he had been a war correspondent in Vietnam and had seen the body bags containing young Americans and Australians being loaded into planes at Tan Son Nhat airport to make their last trip home. “In Saigon, I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d still been living in Australia and working for AAP, my own son, if he’d been the right age, could have been conscripted and finished up in Vietnam, and in a body bag. I had those sort of thoughts during the Falklands War, too.”

Back home, a month after the Argentinians arrived on the Falklands, Muldoon said that if the British asked, New Zealand would provide one of its Leander-class frigates to go to the Falklands to relieve a British ship. Soon after, Muldoon made a trip to Britain. While he was there, the Times published an opinion piece he wrote. The Argentines, it said, must get out of the Falklands “or they must be thrown out …

“The military rulers of Argentina must not be appeased … New Zealand will back Britain all the way.” Muldoon said that like Falkland Islanders, New Zealanders “live at the end of the line and we know the feeling of isolation from main centres of population and I believe that we know how the Islanders feel”. Historically, he said, Britain had produced the leader the nation needed in times of crisis. “I regard Margaret Thatcher as one of the finest and straightest politicians I have ever met.”

The day after that appeared, Round and Radio New Zealand journalist Richard Griffin, who was also covering Muldoon’s London visit, were summoned to the Berkeley Hotel where Muldoon was staying. He told them he had dined the previous evening with Thatcher and her Chief of Defence staff, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Terence Lewin, and had offered the use of the frigate, which the British had accepted.

“So we went off to file our stories,” Round recalls, “but I had forgotten to ask Muldoon if Britain had actually asked for the frigate. That day he was attending a lunch at the Savoy Hotel and after lunch I said, ‘By the way, Prime Minister, did the British Government actually ask for the frigate?’ And Muldoon said, ‘Who the hell cares, Mr Round? That’s the sort of question I would expect from the Leader of the Opposition.’”

Later that day, to cheers and applause in the House of Commons, Thatcher told MPs that “the New Zealand Government and people have been absolutely magnificent in their support for this country [and] the Falkland Islanders, for the rule of liberty and of law”.

When Muldoon made the offer, the HMNZS Canterbury was the only one of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s four frigates to be operational and he told reporters it would not itself be going to the Falklands: “I suppose if you had to give a reason – we’ve only got one.”

He recorded a message to the Falkland Islanders to be played on the BBC World Service programme. It began, “This is Rob Muldoon. We are thinking of you and we are giving our full and total support to the British Government in its endeavours to rectify this situation and get rid of the people who have invaded your country.”

Back home, the Opposition was far less gung-ho. Opposition leader Bill Rowling said Muldoon was more concerned with “setting himself up for a headline” than keeping the New Zealand Parliament and people informed. Rowling, who said New Zealanders were becoming worried their country would join any British war against Argentina, said Muldoon was offering one policy for domestic consumption while touting another far more “hawkish” one in London.

Rob Muldoon, photo NZH

What role New Zealand’s continuing and stressful negotiations with the European Community over access for lamb and butter exports played in Muldoon’s stance remains hard to say. Hensley recalls that when Muldoon was defeated in 1984, the farewell message from Thatcher was: “We will never forget you standing by us at the time of the South Atlantic war.”

“And not to be crudely commercial about it,” Hensley says, “what it meant was that the Brits really did go to bat for us with the wretched European Community over butter and lamb quotas. That’s not why Muldoon did it, but there’s no doubt that although sending the ship was much frowned on by Foreign Affairs, it was regarded by Thatcher and I think a lot of people in Britain as a real gesture of standing by them.” At the time of the crisis, Round directly asked Muldoon whether the frigate was a quid pro quo for Britain’s support in negotiations on trade.

“I think that question suggests you fail to understand what the attitude of the New Zealand public, and certainly the Government party, is towards the Falklands issue,” said Muldoon. “The response of the Government party on this issue was related to the Falkland Islands. Just as simple as that.” Round accepted that, but persisted in asking if “it did not do New Zealand any harm in Britain’s eyes to be backing Britain so publicly”.

“Yes, but I would suggest that it doesn’t do New Zealand any good for you to suggest that we have an ulterior motive,” Muldoon answered. “Your suggestion is totally unwarranted.” Whatever the motivation, Muldoon’s intervention remained popular in Britain. Hensley recalls being on a British Airways plane with Muldoon after the crisis, and crossing the Atlantic to the US when “without any forewarning the pilot announced over the address system, ‘You may wish to know that we have with us on board today Mr Robert Muldoon, the Prime Minister of New Zealand’, and the plane burst into applause.

“It was about the only time that happened in the time he held office but there was no doubt the action, although still debated in New Zealand, was much appreciated in Britain. He’d been in some disgrace the year before in Melbourne over sporting contacts and possibly felt there might be a bit of ground to be made up over that one.”

In Britain, the Government’s handling of the Falklands campaign was controversial. The following year, Thatcher was interviewed on a BBC programme when, unexpectedly, a member of the audience asked about the sinking of the Belgrano. Denis Thatcher said afterwards that his wife had been “stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and Trots”.

Thirty years on, the Falklands still incite passion, although more measured. Controversially, Prince William has just finished a six-week tour of duty there “in the uniform of a conquistador”, in the words of Argentina’s foreign ministry. At least now the exchanges are only verbal.

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