The curse of the grey suits by Quentin Bates

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Iceland is watching the spectacle of its former prime minister Geir Haarde being impeached before a special court that the law makes provision for, but which has now been convened for the first time in the Icelandic republic’s short history.

The ex-prime minister himself spent a day being questioned about his role in the run-up to the financial crisis and has been followed onto the witness stand by other prominent figures who have been making their cases and admitting the myriad failings if those around them.

What seems apparent, and what is likely to emerge even more clearly as the hearings continue, is that Geir Haarde has no business being up there on his own. The fact that he alone is being impeached is a travesty, when the role played by the authorities in the financial crisis is examined.

Geir Haarde is a unique figure in that his name has even entered the language. Haarde has mutated into haardera, a verb describing the act of dithering and doing nothing when faced with a crisis.

The officials in grey suits appearing before the court have admitted that the banks were out of control as far back as 2005. The banksters appearing before the court, a different breed of grey suit, don’t seem to recognize this and reckon they were doing all the right things. Blame has been apportioned far and wide, with very few mistakes admitted. But the startling fact is that only few years after the banks had been privatized and handed over to the ‘right sort of people’, the authorities had effectively lost control of these bastard children and were incapable of reining them in. It’s hard not to read the comments being made by those giving their evidence as anything other than that the government had long been aware that it was sitting on a ticking bomb that was too big to defuse.

Next week’s hearings should take things to even murkier depths, with a raft of dubious figures brought in to be questioned. These include former ministers who could easily have found themselves in the dock alongside Geir Haarde, as well as a horde of ministerial officials, among them Baldur Gudlaugsson, sentenced recently for insider trading when he sold his shares in Landsbanki days before the its collapse.

At the centre is the mercurial figure of David Oddsson, former prime minister and former head of the central bank. He’s a charismatic personality, with a razor sense of humour and the ability to polarize opinion with a few well-placed remarks, especially now he is editor of the country’s main (right-wing) newspaper and busily re-writing history in a way that absolves himself and his cronies of blame or responsibility.

It looks like a litany of 20-20 hindsight. Anyone who was anyone knew that the banks were about to go tits-up and had a good idea of the implications for the country as a whole, but by the time they knew what was happening, it was too late to do anything about it. Not that the general public was allowed to know this stuff, of course, and the banks were allowed to continue hard-selling iniquitous loan packages to all and sundry right up to the very last moment.

As Iceland’s grey-suited men line up in front of the court, another of the same breed has executed a magnificent U-turn. Or has he? President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, now pushing seventy and with four terms behind him, announced at the end of last year that he wouldn’t stand again. But let’s rewind the tape. In fact, what he said was thoroughly ambiguous. In the weeks following his non-announcement, which he steadfastly declined to clarify when asked, several of his political henchmen started a movement to call on ÓRG to stand again. That’s what he was waiting for. He was coyly hanging back, waiting to be asked nicely.

Although Iceland has never seen a sitting president unseated, it’s no foregone conclusion that he’ll be successful. Even the goldfish memory of the Icelandic media remembers with discomfort how ÓRG courted the banksters and was their bosom buddy while the going was good, managing to redeem himself in the eyes of at least part of the electorate by declining to take a decision on the fallout from Landsbanki’s IceSave scam (remember that?) and sending it twice to the electorate to vote down. A more cynical commentator would see that as an opportunity for a PR coup that ÓRG simply couldn’t turn down.

A furious if discreet search is underway for a candidate from some other shade of Icelandic politics to stand against him. Potential candidates are being sized up, and few appear ready to take the plunge – least of all against a wily old fox like ÓRG who has every trick in the book at his fingertips.

His predecessor Vigdís Finnbogadóttir came from a background in the arts, her predecessor Kristján Eldjárn from the academia that he stepped down to return to. ÓRG is a man who inhabits the grey suit like a second skin, who would no more appear without it than he would make an appearance dressed as Wonder Woman.

Practically all of Iceland’s present-day woes can be attributed to the men (and they are mostly men) in the grey suits that are the badge of the establishment and the political links and allegiances that go with it. So maybe it’s time to ditch the grey suit brigade and look somewhere other than the establishment for Iceland’s next president.

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