A Tribute to Bill and Merle Christie
Standing here on the 25th November 1997, delivering the Eulogy to Bill Hunter Christie, who had passed away two months earlier, I commented that
“Bill probably achieved more for the people of the Falkland Islands than any other individual….. in doing that he never told us what to think or what to do, but he believed passionately in our right to decide that for ourselves. He would never accept that others had the right to make that decision.”
Merle selected this comment as the closing piece in her summary of Bill’s life that she wrote for the Dictionary of Falklands Biography.
In his obituary to Merle Christie, David Tatham recalled that in 2007 in a tribute to Merle, during her last visit to the Islands I had said:
“Every step of the way Merle was with him [Bill]. If it wasn’t for the commitment and dedication of Merle and Bill together, I doubt the Falklands would have survived those dark days”.
As a country, and as Falkland Islanders, we have much to be thankful for to Bill and Merle Christie. They didn’t have to dedicate huge chunks of their lives to defending the right to self-determination for Falkland Islanders, but they did.
Both Bill and Merle were well suited to the campaigning, politicking and lobbying that was necessary to create an awareness of the Falkland Islands amongst British politicians, and to impede the progress of secret negotiations in the 60’s and 70’s with the Argentines to transfer or compromise sovereignty.
Bill had a background that included a spell in the Foreign Office, in the Embassy in Buenos Aries, a good knowledge of the Antarctic and the geo-political issues surrounding membership of the Antarctic Treaty from his time at the Scott Polar Research Institute, a solid campaigning background for human rights in Northern Ireland, and for the Inland Waterways in England.
Merle worked for the Ministry of Defence during WWII and for many years afterwards, and also worked for JUSTICE, the founding organisation of the International Commission of Jurists. The concept of self-determination came naturally to them both. She and Bill married in 1950.
In his obituary to Merle, David Tatham wrote “From 1968 an increasing share of Bill’s work was consumed by his campaign to defend the interests of the Falkland Islanders, having been asked for help by a group of leading Islanders and, in response, he built up a formidable lobbying group in the UK – the Falkland Island Emergency Committee (later the United Kingdom Falkland Islands Committee). In this he had the devoted support of Merle who, working from home, became secretary to the Committee, organising meetings and agendas and handling Bill’s voluminous correspondence. As the pressure of work increased a separate office was required and the Falkland Islands Association Office was set up in 1977 and Air Commodore Brian Frow was engaged to manage it, with Leif Pollard (nee Barton) as his secretary; after Leif left to return to the Islands Sukey Cameron replaced her in 1979. During the Conflict, Merle was among the many volunteers who supported the two permanent staff members, also offering hospitality and accommodation in their home in Chelsea, to Islanders stranded in London. The liberation of the Islands in June 1982 was a vindication of the Hunter Christies’ years of campaigning and Bill visited the Islands twice after the Conflict, receiving the Freedom of Stanley in 1994”.
Robert Elgood wrote of Bill “For 25 years he was Mr Falklands, consulted and hugely respected by politicians, diplomats and writers, many of whom rejected his opinions, but could not ignore them. His views were stubbornly and uncompromisingly held like those of the Islanders, but he saw further and more clearly than most…..A series of discussion papers on military and economic matters were produced by the UK FI Committee, and many of the ideas in these were later developed in the Shackleton Reports. A great deal of the early work to establish a fisheries regime off the Falklands was done by Bill and the South Atlantic Fisheries Committee. The present prosperity of the Falkland Islands is the result.”
Robert also observed that Bill had the ability to inspire young people, and always talked of the need to have young people involved in the campaign. I first met Bill at a Falkland Islands Reunion Party at Ham Hall in 1972, where he was recruiting young Falkland Islanders living and working in the UK. He suggested that it would come well from some young Islanders to write to The Times about some scurrilous correspondence from the Argentine Embassy, and the rather weak response by HMG. By some miracle he had a draft letter !
After a few changes the letter was written and published in The Times, signed by Jane Cameron, Leif Barton, Robert Rowlands, Elena Butler, Lewis Clifton, Nicky Rieve and myself. Thus was born a new generation of activists.
A demonstration of the kindness and commitment of the Christie family came as a direct consequence of the letter. The address we used was Leif’s flat in North London. She was promptly thrown out by her landlady for taking part in political activities, but she was taken in by the Christies to Tedworth Square, where she stayed for several months.
The emergence of the UK Falkland Islands Committee during the ‘70s, with Bill Christie and Frank Mitchell as its figureheads, is well documented, and several MPs from all parties were recruited to the Committee, including Clifford Kenyon, James Johnson and Michael Clark-Hutchinson. They brought into the open the secret dealings of the Wilson Government, and caused them to be stopped, or at least interrupted, and opened a new chapter in the fight to keep the Falklands British.
Bill and Merle worked tirelessly, and undoubtedly to the detriment of their young family, to promote the cause of the Falklands people, and to insist, in meeting after meeting, that it should be the wishes of the Islanders that should be paramount in any discussions on our status, and not the interests as the more colonial leaning factions would have it. They very clearly noted the distinction between wishes, which were our prerogative, and interests which would be assessed by others. You still see this language in Argentine colonial aspirations today.
From 1976 the focus of the Falkland Islands supporters club began to widen, to consider the commercial interests of the Islands, as well as the political imperatives. The Committee lobbied successfully to get Wilson’s second administration to undertake an economic survey of the Islands, carried out by Lord Shackleton, who, by the time he left for the Islands, was very well briefed on which options to consider. The positive tone of the Shackleton Report was a surprise to some, and formed the basis of future actions.
The lobbying began to set up a Falklands fishing zone. This caused something of a tension in the purely political camp, and the Falkland Islands Association was created, and for some years the two organisations ran in parallel, before the Committee work was eventually subsumed into the Association. The office opened in Greycoat Place, where it became the Falklands campaigning and support base during the war. And whilst the idea of a permanent office came from Bill, Merle did much of the administrative work to make this a reality.
After the Falklands war, when for a less self- effacing person it would have been natural to promote the Association’s own office and work, Bill instead encouraged FIG to open its own office in London, to which Adrian Monk was appointed the first Representative, and who received tremendous support from the joint Committees. He was subsequently succeeded by Lewis Clifton who set up the office in Broadway which remains our permanent presence near Westminster.
With the Falklands more politically secure after the war, the focus again turned to the future, and to fishing. Bill continued to lead our group in the Association, in support of the Falkland Islands Government, to encourage, cajole, inform, lobby, recruit and pressurise for the fishing zone to be declared. Politicians and their advisors said there were no fish, or that if there were we couldn’t afford to police the zone. The Foreign Office dithered, trying hopelessly to get a multi-lateral agreement through the UNFAO for a jointly administered zone. The Association continued to pressurise for the wishes of the people of the Islands to be heeded, and eventually the zone was declared in 1986, with hugely beneficial effects.
After the publicity of the war, and some new economic success, there was more public, and more political interest in the Falkland Islands, and finally the acceptance emerged in HMG of the right of the Islanders to determine their own future as they chose, which now stands as firm UK Government policy. It wasn’t always that way, and many battles had to be fought to extinguish the residue of colonial attitude.
This for Bill, and for Merle, was the essence of the struggle. They never told us what to think, or what to do, but they believed passionately in our right to determine that for ourselves. They would never accept that others had the right to make that decision.
Wishes, not interests. Self-determination, though oddly the term was rarely used in those days.
In June 2020 Members of the Falklands Legislative Assembly decided to name the newly opened library ‘The Christie Community Library’. MLA Stacey Bragger said this would be “a fitting tribute to them and… a permanent reminder of all they did for us.” In that he was entirely right.
Many of us here today will have met and talked with Merle and Bill, either at political events or receptions in the UK, or most likely during one of their visits to the Islands. They were both charming, open and committed to the Falkland Islands. They were people to whom principles mattered most, and were unlikely ever to bow to authority for the sake of it.
I worked for years with Bill in the Association, and enjoyed every minute of it. He was persuasive, manipulative (in the nicest possible way), dignified, and always an enthusiast. We were fortunate indeed that the old boy network found Bill in our hours of need. And we are equally fortunate that he, and we, had the dedicated support of Merle without whom many of the achievements would not have been possible, or the records maintained.
We who now live in the Falkland Islands, under a Government of our choosing, owe to the memory of these friends, a very great deal indeed; we will repay it only by sticking to our consciences and our principles, and preparing this country well for our children and their successors. That is what Bill and Merle Christie would have done.