12 Feb 2014

‘Insult to the nation’: admiral sees red over Argentine bid to ban British flag

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Admiral Lord West of Spithead is used to feeling the wrath of the Argentinians. The former First Sea Lord was at the helm of his frigate HMS Ardent when it was bombed and sunk during the Falklands war.

So as a passenger on Cunard’s cruise liner the Queen Victoria earlier this month, he was incensed to learn that the Argentine authorities were flexing their muscles.

“After we’d gone round Cape Horn I was at dinner with the captain, and the captain said to me that when they were in Buenos Aires that she’d basically been threatened with a punitive fine of $10,000 and also told there’d be ‘trouble’ in inverted commas – not specified – if she didn’t take down the red ensign which the ship flies,” Lord West told me today.

We were speaking on board the HQS Wellington, the headquarters of the honourable company of master mariners, which was proudly flying the flag in question.

The red duster, as its known, is worn by all British non-military shipping. But Argentina’s largest province passed a law banning vessels flying the flag from docking in Buenos Aires.

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“I think it’s an insult – it’s an insult to the nation,” the Admiral said, describing the provincial law as “atrocious”.

However, it’s understood that the law only applies to ships which have travelled to the Falklands, so the Queen Victoria shouldn’t have fallen foul of it.

Tonight, when informed of the incident by Channel 4 News, the Foreign Office said: “We condemn any attempts by the Argentine authorities to unnecessarily interfere with the legitimate transit of UK-flagged vessels…This appears to be another example of unacceptable harassment and intimidation…We are urgently discussing the matter with Carnival UK [Cunard’s parent company] and will raise this with the Argentine authorities.”

Lord West is a Labour peer but the Falklands war has been embraced by Conservatives as their former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s finest hour.

Perhaps Cunard’s finest hour too: its flagship, the QE2, transported troops to the islands during the conflict. So Argentine sabre-rattling is likely to be met with a robust riposte.

Argentina’s president has been stoking tensions with Britain since she called for David Cameron to return the Falklands to her country a year ago. In the midst of an economic meltdown, Argentina has threatened to imprison anyone who taps potentially lucrative oil reserves around the islands.

Admiral West now plans to ask questions in parliament about the latest diplomatic incident. Knowing the enduring political potency of the Falklands victory, ministers are unlikely to hold back in their answers.

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