Fellow Icelanders, My best wishes on this Icelandic National Day.
“It will take more than empty words to put Iceland back on its feet, it will take energy, thrift, foresight and persistence.”
Those were the words of Jón Sigurðsson, the trail blazer in our nation's struggle for independence and an untiring campaigner to improve the nation's lot. Today, June 17th, we celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. To mark this occasion, celebrations at Jón's birthplace, at Hrafnseyri in the West Fjords, will be more festive than ever before. Extensive preparation has gone into organising a colourful programme of events there and in many other locations around Iceland, commemorating this occasion.
On National Day, Icelanders everywhere celebrate the nation's independence. We celebrate the quality of life with which the land provides us, and the advances in development and affluence which we have achieved through the joint contribution of all generations.
In this instance, National Day greets us after an unusually chilly spring. We have justifiably felt that summer has kept us waiting this year; even well into June the Icelandic mountains smiled at us, cloaked in white down to their very roots. Climate is a major factor for Icelanders, as few nations experience as drastic seasonal changes in daylight as we do.
As a result, anticipation of spring and summer is that much greater, and we definitely appreciate these summer months after the lengthy winter. Everything awakens: birds, vegetation and people. We are filled with optimism and happiness, and join with others to enjoy the good times awaiting us.
The fact that the Republic of Iceland was founded on the birth date of Jón Sigurðsson, 67 years ago, is evidence of the respect he has always been accorded by Icelanders. During these 67 years, which is hardly a long time in the history of a nation, Icelanders have acquired very valuable experience and maturity.
Our society has grown stronger in most respects, and developed into one which can serve as a model in many respects in the global community, with the result that we are now regarded as pioneers in various fields.
We should be proud of our unique country, its natural beauty, our shared resources and natural riches, which have been entrusted to us to cultivate and conserve.
We should be proud of the fact that our youngsters today are better educated, even more conscious of their environment and nature's invaluable qualities than were previous generations.
We should be proud of the society which has developed here through the centuries and its huge economic advances since the establishment of the Republic. A society with a strong infrastructure, which shows its strength and unity not least when dealing with the harsh forces of nature.
We should be proud of our cultural heritage and the fertile culture thriving here.
We can be proud of the respect here for human rights. Proud of being considered the most peaceful nation in the world, that there is no country in the world judged a better place to bear and raise children.
It was a day to remember when the Icelandic Althingi recently adopted legislation on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language, which is both evidence of the respect we bear for our culture and history, and for all aspects of human rights.
In the last decades of the 19th century, when Jón Sigurðsson fought for the independence of the nation, income per capita in Iceland was only half of the income that most nationals in western countries received. For almost the entire time since Iceland became a republic, the standard of living has been among the best in the world.
Naturally our economic history has had its ups and downs, perhaps to a greater degree than in most countries. Those of us with the benefit of years recall the economic crisis of the late sixties and how this was turned around, to usher in an era of unparalleled prosperity, which saw Iceland become a member of EFTA.
There were more recent downturns, such as the one in the early nineties, with economic contraction and stagnation year after year. But the deepest and sharpest plunge is the one we have just experienced. Now economic growth is once more positive and awaiting us are investment projects needed to create productive jobs throughout Iceland. The key to better times ahead is national solidarity and mutual trust. We hold plenty of good cards and have all the prerequisites to play them well.
The basis of value creation in this country has been changing. In past centuries, our livelihoods were dependent almost exclusively on fisheries and agriculture, but new and value-creating sectors such as travel services and software industries are now expanding with each passing year.
We have to be constantly alert for possibilities to create permanent and valuable jobs, to foster the enormous human capital potential of our youngsters, the Icelanders who will soon take over the reins from their elders.
Each sector supports others, making it crucial that respect prevail between those which are more traditional and those which are staking out their claims. Today, discussion of green economics and its future are at the forefront in Nordic countries and among other Western nations. In this field Icelanders need to be at the leading edge, ready to share our expertise and experience with others.
Our scientists are among the world's leaders in many fields and we have been accumulating knowledge in fields such as energy and biotechnology which is noteworthy.
I can mention as an example the Motivation Award of the Science and Technology Policy Council, which was recently awarded to a pioneer in research on biomolecules and bioactive substances in Icelandic nature. In the town of Sauðárkrókur, in North Iceland, experts work on domestic and foreign research projects in close collaboration with the food industry in the Skagafjörður area and elsewhere in Iceland. Start-ups and other vigorous biotech companies also benefit from this work and there are other such examples around Iceland. Opportunities in this field are practically limitless.
The University of Iceland, for example, has adopted ambitious research targets and on the occasion of the university's centennial today a special Centennial Fund will be established, with the aim of greatly expanding research in Iceland.
Not to forget the creative arts: the theatre group Vesturport's international recognition for its exceptional theatre productions; the Frankfurter Buchmesse, where Icelandic literature is in the spotlight; and musical events in the concert halls in Harpa and Hof which have entranced audiences.
These are only a very few examples of the positive trends in Iceland, to which considerably greater attention could well be devoted. During my travels throughout the country, I have been repeatedly impressed by the energy in so many fields, and this applies not least where cross-sectoral co-operation flourishes.
Despite its specialness, there are many areas where life in Iceland could be improved. This is truer today than often before, in the wake of the major difficulties resulting from the economic collapse. However, these are temporary difficulties, even though of course they take their toll, are and leave both social and economic scars behind them. But these scars can be healed and we can work our way out of this situation, so that the result will be a stronger society than ever before.
One of the major tasks ahead of us is to shape a new constitution for our society, a new social contract for the country's administration and basic principles.
During the formative years of the Icelandic state administration, from the re-establishment of the Althingi in 1845 until the establishment of the Republic of Iceland 99 years later, Icelanders wrestled with two constitutional questions. The first was what form the relationship with Denmark should take, and the second was what should be the internal arrangements for the national government.
Jón Sigurðsson concerned himself extensively with both issues. He attended the Danish constitutional assembly of 1848-49, which drafted the Danish constitution. At the time it was considered among the most progressive in Europe. Jón was also an elected representative at the famous National Assembly, convened in 1851 in the Reykjavík Grammar School, which was intended to draft Iceland's first constitution.
It was generally recognised when the Republic was established, that the task of creating long-term constitutional arrangements was far from complete. It is in fact remarkable to think that it is only now, 160 years after the dismissal of the National Assembly, that work on the first completely Icelandic constitution is underway by the Constitutional Council. Not until now has the executive power taken the step of entrusting non-partisan representatives of the nation with shaping the new playing rules for Icelandic society, without the intervention of political parties, the executive branch or the legislature.
At the National Assembly 160 years ago, it was the Danish Count Trampe who held the reins of power. Today, in 2011, it is the Althingi which can respond to the Constitutional Council's proposals and place them in the hands of the people of Iceland. A more fitting tribute to Jón Sigurðsson, two centuries after his birth, is scarcely to be imagined than for his wish for an Icelandic constitution, of the country's own people, to be realised.
Gazing over the country from his plinth on Austurvöllur, assessing the situation, Jón Sigurðsson can be proud of his nation. I am convinced that he does not merely focus on the temporary difficulties with which we wrestle, or dwell on the day-to-day wrangling, which too often characterises political and media debate.
He knows too well that all of this is trivial compared to the major successes of Icelandic society. He knows that it takes more than empty words to get you up onto your feet and moving forward. Without any doubt, the Icelandic nation has achieved much more than was ever envisaged by Jón Sigurðsson and his contemporaries.
Jón Sigurðsson knew that the key to progress and achievement lay with the people themselves. Icelanders themselves needed to believe in the future, to be convinced of their own strength and ability, and realise that the future of the nation lay in its collective strength.
In Jón Sigurðsson's day, Icelanders were an impoverished nation of farmers and fishermen, numbering only between sixty and seventy thousand. It was anything but given that such a nation was capable of governing itself. The obstacles were therefore great, and far from comparable to the temporary challenges with which Icelanders are now struggling.
Formal social infrastructure was extremely limited and could be described as underdeveloped in many respects. In Jón's estimation, apathy was the greatest enemy. He wanted to challenge Icelanders to take action, to force them to think. This he did, in part, by urging them to educate themselves in every field, to participate actively in a wide variety of organisations and associations, and to campaign for improvements in their own industries.
Today we definitely have infrastructure, robust in most respects, and we have the tools to ensure that in the future there will be one nation - one society in this country. A society built on equality and consensus, with equity in living standards and available services. In the wake of the economic collapse we have an opportunity to rebuild a more equitable society, guided by respect for all groups and classes in society. Where every one is provided with equal opportunities to make a contribution in different areas, depending upon the abilities, characteristics and interests of each.
It is no coincidence that Nordic welfare societies are, by most measures, the world's most economically successful societies, which serve as models for other nations because welfare and economic prowess go hand-in-hand.
This is not least the case in small societies such as that of Iceland. Such societies simply fail to thrive when inequality gets out of bounds. We strayed from the path awhile, but it is my sincere hope and belief that the striking inequalities which developed during the decade preceding the collapse will not take root again.
I believe that all of us want our families, friends and fellows to enjoy as equal opportunities as possible, and to live together in a society characterised by equity and mutual respect.
This should be the focus of efforts to boost living standards in the years to come. By increasing equality, they will ensure additional triumphs for Icelandic society, while healing the wounds left by the collapse and inequality of the past decade on the economy and society.
We may be able to put to good use the setbacks which struck us, to learn from them; only time will tell.
Energy, thrift, foresight and persistence, were the words Jón Sigurðsson chose to rally his nation in the early nineteenth century.
His rallying cry is no less appropriate today, and we should honour the memory of this great campaigner by making them our watchwords.
Let us be energetic and thrifty, show foresight and persistence, and work together in unity to build a healthy and robust society.
The summer awaits us, and there are definitely brighter times ahead for the Icelandic nation.
May all of you enjoy this National Day and bicentennial year.