Iceland’s blue ‘flu by Quentin Bates

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Last week something like four hundred police officer (that’s around half the total force) marched from Reykjavík’s central police station to the Ministry of Finance to deliver a petition. Nota bene, this wasn’t a petition simply demanding higher pay, although that was certainly part of the package, but also to be allowed the tools to do their jobs properly.

One thing’s certain, an Icelandic police officer of the sort who sits on a motorbike in the rain while the traffic whizzes past, picks up and looks after drunks, or answers 112 calls that could be anything from a minor traffic scrape to a teenage suicide isn’t doing it for the vast salary.

The formal opening of Iceland’s Parliament took place on the first of October with MPs walking slowly from the Parliament building to the cathedral next door. It’s a tradition, and since the newer tradition of protesting in public started to establish itself, this short walk gives protesters the opportunity to yell at their elected representatives in clear view, and to pelt them with eggs that shops in the neighbourhood reportedly stock up on in advance.

One MP took a direct hit, but bar the shouting it all went off peacefully enough. This was in spite of the jitters that ran through the establishment at the very real prospect of the police force collectively suffering from ‘blue ‘flu’, a virulent infection that appears to affect only one group of people and coinciding with the opening of Parliament.

In the event, the real surprise of the day was that Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s wealthy, British/Israeli, jewellery designer socialite wife, Dorrit Moussaieff, took the opportunity to stop and talk to protestors. Hands were shaken and some protestors were hugged over the barricades, before she clambered over the top and talked to protestors while her husband harangued the MPs inside.

What was noticeable was that there was no overwhelming police presence. Unlike during previous protests, there were no shields and no helmets, as, after long negotiations and massive dissatisfaction in the ranks, police officers had resigned en masse from the riot squad a couple of days before.

At one point it looked as if the police wouldn’t even supply the traditional guard of honour and one MP suggested that voluntary rescue teams could fill the gap. That went down like a lead balloon, with the rescue teams politely pointing out that’s not their role and declining to even touch that particular political hot potato.

Iceland takes its employment negotiations seriously. Wrangling between unions and employers can last for weeks and months, occasionally leading to crises and strikes. The machinations of it all are complex to say the least and best not gone into here, but suffice to say, the last agreements ran out almost a year ago and so in this case, Iceland’s police found themselves employed on the basis of a set of agreements that are no longer valid.

At the same time, the cash that the country’s law enforcement has at its disposal has been slashed. This doesn’t just apply to the police, but to every area of the public sector. In blunt terms, the banksters made off with the cash that should have been there for the Icelandic state to run hospitals and schools, pay teachers and nurses, build roads and bridges, collect the garbage, clear snow off the roads in winter, as well as doing the daft stuff that governments also do so magnificently.

The cash that the banksters squirreled away in countries where few questions are asked should have also paid for new police cars, a pay rise or two and all the bits and pieces that a western police force needs to keep the traffic running smoothly. Maybe I’ll turn to the horrors of Icelandic traffic in a future post, but the thought of it, having recently returned from Iceland, makes the blood run cold.

The problem facing law enforcement is also compounded by the fact that it wasn’t popular with the twenty-odd years of privatisation-obsessed government that preceded the cold shock of the financial crash. Successive governments had already whittled away at the police, the prison service and the Coastguard. By the time the post-crash dust started to settle and the wide-eyed and pale-faced new government decreed less cash all round, cuts in law enforcement weren’t trimming fat, but slicing into meat and bone.

The conundrum here is that while police officers resort to bringing in their own light bulbs and toilet paper to keep police stations habitable, the island’s highly enterprising criminal fraternity appear to be doing just fine. The numbers of burglaries and muggings shot up as hard times called for desperate measures, while a few new forms of criminal enterprise also started to blossom. Someone placing a small ad for, let’s say, fuel pump for a 2006 Pajero, would more than likely get a call from someone who happened to have one. Except that it had probably been quietly removed from someone else’s 2006 Pajero. It takes things to a whole new level of speculative theft.

There is a wealth of highly complex white-collar issues that still demand attention in the wake of the crash and  law enforcement also has to deal with new problems such as organised crime and people trafficking that are very new to this island.

While law enforcement has been slashed, the opposition is enjoying a field day and Iceland’s crims certainly aren’t struggling to cope with budget cuts and manpower shortages – quite the reverse.

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