Vér mótmælum allir by Quentin Bates

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I’ve mentioned before that Icelanders don’t protest. They’re much the same as us Brits, just grumbling as they take the crap that’s dropped on them from a great height and making the best of muddling through. Not that all that many of my Icelandic friends would be happy about being compared to Brits.

But the protest thing has changed. The 2009 protests were so new, with Icelanders taking to the streets to howl their government out of office, that there was a massive shock value to them. Before that, Icelanders hadn’t protested en masse since the country controversially joined NATO without any real consultation taking place. That was in 1949, so there were almost exactly sixty years between Icelanders taking to the streets to complain.

Since 2009 here have been frequent protests. A great many Icelanders aren’t happy, in spite of the tales sweeping the internet of how the country is doing so well after letting its banks fail and jailing its errant bankers. Well, it isn’t quite like that…

The banks weren’t allowed to fail, but put in stasis and new banks allowed to start up on the ruins of the old ones, and the few jailed bankers have only recently found themselves behind some rather comfortable bars. It’s not as if they’ve been banged up alongside real villains, and have instead been placed in an open nick, supposedly with access to stuff that standard issue villains have to smuggle in concealed in unmentionable places.

As for the economy doing so fantastically well, it’s true enough that a few fishing companies are finally making enough money to invest in much-needed new tonnage. The aluminium business is still shifting its profits out of the country without having to pay much by the way of tax, and the travel business is booming, for the moment at any rate. But I’m not sure that the nurses who are currently resigning in droves after the government steamrollered through legislation outlawing strike action would agree that everything in the garden is rosy. It seems it was all right for government to strike a wages deal with the doctors, but nurses are clearly in a different bracket, as are virtually all public employees – police officers, firemen, staff of the beleaguered state broadcaster and others, and Iceland’s once excellent health service is under colossal pressure. But I’m digressing…

The 17th of June fell this week, Iceland’s national day. It’s traditionally a national holiday with parades, bands and hot dogs, a celebration that includes speeches by local luminaries and the appearance of the Fjallkonan, the mountain lady, a local lady chosen for the day and resplendent in national dress who represents Iceland’s independence.

For the first time this year, there were protests in Reykjavík on the 17th of June and plenty of people have been outraged that the Prime Minister’s speech could hardly be heard for the shouts and the jeers. There has been an outcry in the press, and much anger on social media, which is certainly where the real mood of the country is to be found rather than in the handful of newspapers owned by business oligarchs with agendas of their own.

It should maybe be remembered that Iceland’s national day is the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, the hero of the country’s independence movement and his famous and oft-quoted statement Vér mótmælum allir – we all protest. But back then he was protesting against the iniquities of Danish colonial rule, not the ham-fisted rule of Iceland’s own present-day political elite that has become remarkably unpopular since it came to power two years ago.

There are people who are understandably upset by the effrontery of protests taking place on the 17th of June. Would Jón Sigurðsson have refrained from objecting for fear of upsetting someone? This latest protest has got people talking once again. Maybe the shock value is needed.

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