David Cameron today called on Argentina to respect the wishes of Falkland islanders to remain British, 31 years after the territory was freed from occupation by a task force that sailed from Portsmouth.
The Prime Minister said the 99.8 per cent vote in favour of remaining a British Overseas Territory in a referendum held on the islands over the past two days was the “clearest possible result there could be”.
He said Britain would always be there to defend the islands.
Speaking at 10 Downing Street just hours after the result of the referendum was announced, Mr Cameron said it sent a clear message to Argentina.
“They should take careful note of this result,” said the Prime Minister.
“The Falkland islanders couldn’t have spoken more clearly. They want to remain British and that view should be respected by everybody, including by Argentina.”
Islanders voted to remain an overseas territory during a two-day referendum in the capital Port Stanley.
A total of 1,517 valid votes were cast, a turnout of 92 per cent of the islanders eligible to vote.
In a clear message of defiance to the Argentine government, 1,513 voted to remain under British rule, with just three voting against the referendum question “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the outcome, saying it “demonstrates more clearly than ever” the islanders wish to remain as an overseas territory.
The poll, which was ratified as “free and fair” by international observers, came against a backdrop of heightened Argentine pressure for negotiations with London over the sovereignty of the islands they know as Las Malvinas.
Argentina maintained that the vote was illegal and “pointless”, and that islanders - an “implanted people” - have no voice in a dispute that must be settled bilaterally.
But the near-unanimous result of the referendum clearly reinforced the islanders deep feelings that they are British and want to remain a self-governing overseas territory.
Nigel Haywood, governor of the Falkland Islands, said the referendum was a “massive demonstration of the way the Falkland Islanders feel and of the way they see their future”.
He said: “Obviously it is a major principle of the United Nations that a people have their right to self-determination, and you don’t get a much clearer expression of the people’s self-determination than such a large turn out and such a large yes vote.”
Following the vote Mr Hague said: “I welcome today’s result, which demonstrates more clearly than ever the Falkland Islanders’ wish to remain an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.
“We have always been clear that we believe in the rights of the Falklands people to determine their own futures and to decide on the path they wish to take. It is only right that, in the 21st century, these rights are respected.
“All countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland Islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy. I wish them every success in doing so.”
The islands’ 2,563 residents did all they could in the lead up to the referendum to show their sympathies, waving Union Jack flags and dressing up in red-white-and-blue.
Dick Sawle, a member of the Legislative Assembly - the Falkland Islands government - who was at the count in Port Stanley, called the result “absolutely fantastic”.
The vote will “send out the strongest possible message to the rest of the world about our right to self-determination, a right which was fought for in 1982 and which we’ve honoured tonight,” he told the BBC.
“What it means is that the people here have expressed their will, their wishes, it means they have expressed their opinion on what they want for the political status of the Falkland Islands.
“And that of course means that our right to self-determination has been enshrined for the future, it means that at any time in the future we can exercise that right to change the status quo if we wish to do so.
“But people here have very, very clearly said they wish to remain as a British Overseas Territory with those rights.
“The British government is 100% behind us and it will be our job now as a government to get that message out to the rest of the world and every country that will listen to us.”
Argentina considers the “Islas Malvinas” to be part of its national territory, taken from them by the British more than 180 years ago, and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took the issue to the United Nations (UN) on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War last year.
Mr Sawle said the Falklands government would take the referendum result to the UN this summer, and said the vote had paved the way to strengthen the government of the Falkland Islands.
He said: “We will see more authority being devolved to the Falkland Islands government... make no mistake about it, this government is set to become even stronger than before, and with this massive vote of the people behind us this gives us this very clear mandate that we need for the future.”
Speaking after the vote, islander Lynda Buckland called it “absolutely brilliant”.
“It sends a message out to the rest of the world that we are British and we want to remain that way. My family has been here since 1842 and that is longer than most Argentines have been in Argentina.
“What this is all about is getting the rest of the world to realise what our neighbours are doing to us.”
Journalist Celina Andreassi, from the Argentina Independent in Buenos Aires, said the strength of the Yes vote had been “quite predictable”.
“The majority of people here agree with the official position, that the issue is not about self-determination and it is not about whether the islanders consider themselves British or not, because obviously everyone knows that they do and that they are British.
“The issue for most people here is that whether the territory is Argentine or British, not the people themselves.
“I really don’t think this referendum is going to make much of a difference... both sides are going to remain really strong in their position and we are probably going to continue where we are for a long, long time.”