My fellow Icelanders,
On this National Day we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Iceland. Looking back over these seven decades, we can certainly say that the venture has been a success. The history of Iceland since the establishment of the Republic has been a chronicle of great progress, even in a global context; in fact it is one of the most impressive periods of development that any nation has ever experienced.
Iceland has come out in some of the top few places in international surveys of living standards, whether these are measured in terms of life expectancy, access to health services, justice and equality, economic development, use of sophisticated technology or democracy. And accordingly, we have been found to be one of the happiest nations in the world.
We have experienced both sunshine and storms during the time of the Republic. We have had to fight to defend our right to control our natural resources and our finances as an independent nation. There have sometimes been some large ups and downs in the economy, but overall, developments have been very much in the right direction.
And now, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, we have before us the next chapter in this story of growth and development. The generation of value is now growing faster here than in most countries, even faster than in all other countries in Europe. Our unemployment rate continues to drop, while in many of the countries with which we compare ourselves, unemployment has now reached such levels as to be causing unrest and is even threatening the basis of prosperity.
The proportion of the population living below the poverty line and in danger of social exclusion here in Iceland is the lowest in Europe, and our aim is to bring it down still further. In other European countries an average of a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. Here the proportion is half of that.
On the other hand, this does not mean we are content with the situation as it is; nor should we be so. Progress depends on a desire to do better. As we chalk up our successes, the plight of those who do not share the spoils calls more insistently for our attention.
A significant factor in the drive to establish a republic, and in the successes we have achieved up to now, was the fact that we did not consider it acceptable that poverty should still exist in Iceland, even if it is at the lowest level in Europe. We should look upon our nation as one large family. We want all members of the community to benefit from its prosperity. Everyone should enjoy freedom, equality and equal opportunity; everyone should enjoy security and a decent standard of living. What is more, the history of our Republic up to now, and the prospects for our future, indicate that we should be able to achieve these aims.
They are worthy aims to fight for, and we must continue to work together so that everyone can reap the benefits of the progress and development that are part of the history of the Icelandic Republic.
Already by the early part of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth [930-1262 AD] the population of Iceland is believed to have been something like a third to a half of that of Norway. At the foundation of the modern Republic 70 years ago, on the other hand, our population was only about four per cent of that of Norway. But during this time of immense prosperity since 1944 our population has trebled. Iceland's population has grown faster than that of most Western countries.
However, this increase has not brought equal benefit to all parts of the country.
It is a matter of concern to us that the progress made during our time as a republic has not brought equal benefit to the whole country, even though people in all parts of it have certainly made their contribution. Now, as we pause to look back over the way we have come, this is something we must give closer consideration. When we think of progress in Iceland, the growth of our population, the development of infrastructure, improvements in living standards and welfare, investment, job opportunities and access to services, it is only natural that we should want to see the whole country sharing in these benefits.
By maintaining a human presence on farms and in towns and villages all over the country we lay the foundation for richer community life and also make it possible to enjoy the priceless natural amenities that our country has to offer and a quality of life that is becoming more and more sought-after. Fewer than 7,000 people now live in the West Fjords. In 1944 there were 12,500 people living there. The population of the West Fjords is now smaller than it was in the 19th century, and accounts for only a little over 2% of the total population of the country. In many other parts of Iceland too, the population has declined due to changes in the way people make their living and because we have not succeeded in creating comparable living conditions in all areas.
Of course, the same pattern has emerged in many places throughout the world. In 1944, about 12% of the population of Norway lived in Oslo and its neighbouring districts; now about one in four of all Norwegians live in the metropolitan area. There is a general consensus in Norway that the nation's capital now looms so large in all calculations that the government must take special measures to support the more sparsely-populated areas so as to redress the demographic balance.
At the foundation of our Republic, nearly 4 out of 10 Icelanders lived in the metropolitan area. Now this figure is nearly 7 out of 10. It is only natural that we should agree on the importance of having the whole country benefit from the developments that take place over the coming years and decades.
Norway does more than Iceland to boost its rural communities by means of tax concessions, special loans, support for new creative ventures and other forms of investment. But the most important thing is to develop a strong infrastructure in the rural areas. In today's materially prosperous society, people in all parts of the country must be guaranteed reliable and accessible transport and telecommunications, health services, education and other public services. And of course it is desirable and natural that public-sector jobs should be spread more evenly across the country than is the case at present.
A large part of our exports and our tax revenues are created in the rural areas. It is only natural that more of the wealth generated there should be used for investment and infrastructure development. Revenues brought in by the fishing industry, for example, must be used for the benefit of the localities where they are generated and so contribute towards greater stability and economic variety in regions that have developed on the basis of fishing.
It is to everyone's advantage to have good living conditions in all parts of the country. This would make the best use of both our human and our natural resources and be for the benefit of the whole population. Inhabitants of the metropolitan area would have much to gain from this, no less than those who live far from the city.
Most of Iceland's population centres owe their existence to the natural resources that could be exploited in the immediate vicinity. Changes in the way we make our living and other social developments have distorted this basic pattern of settlement. A large proportion of jobs are now no longer dependent on having natural resources close by. But this is something that cuts both ways. Jobs that are not tied to a particular location can be done in small villages in the rural areas just as well as they can in or near the capital.
In addition, it is now likely that location close to natural resources and future opportunities will once again play an important role in the years ahead. The great opportunities that Iceland will face due to developments in the Arctic will be exploited first and foremost in those parts of the country that have been through difficult times over the past few decades. It is important to prepare ourselves well to make use of these opportunities; one way of doing this is to build up our infrastructure.
Greater volumes of shipping across the Arctic may lead to the emergence of busy harbour activities in the north and east of the country, together with services and manufacturing industries of various types, with raw materials being shipped to Iceland from widely separate sources for processing and the finished products then exported to destinations all over the world.
Prospecting for oil and natural gas will call for activities in many parts of the country. No matter what happens regarding extraction in our own economic zone, experience shows that know-how and skills could be developed here which could make Iceland into a service centre for the exploitation of resources in our neighbouring countries. For example, it would be only natural to work with the Greenlanders when they begin extracting and processing the immense natural resources in eastern Greenland and the waters offshore. The villages in our West Fjords and in many other parts of the north and west of Iceland would be well situated to provide services of all types, from workshop facilities and food-processing to health services and research. Collaboration with our neighbours is of immense importance to Iceland, whether it be in the sphere of tourism, environmental protection, education or culture.
Our country has become the focus of great interest, and our trade contacts with other countries provide us with the opportunity to develop our export industries. We have the country, the people, the natural resources, the know-how and the energy that we need to build on in the future.
We are now in a very different position, and a much better position, than we were when the Republic was founded 70 years ago. The results that were achieved in the decades following the foundation followed not least from our people's attitude: the belief that, as a nation, all roads were open to us. It would be a great pity if, now when even greater opportunities are awaiting us than ever before, we failed to make use of them because we lacked the belief in progress that steered our course back in 1944, and earlier in the last century when circumstances were in all other respects far less favourable. Belief in the idea of Iceland and its capabilities as an independent republic, belief in our own united strength – this is the basis of progress and success.
On 17 June 1944 the entire nation was present, in spirit, in the rain at Þingvellir. Thousands of people went there, to the Law Rock [Lögberg] to be present at the foundation of the Republic, and all over the country people's attention was on the ceremony and celebrations there. The report in the newspaper Morgunblaðið two days later describes clearly the joy that was prevalent on this occasion:
“There in the tents that morning it was quite clear that ... all those who were there were friends and brothers, even if they had never met before ... On that grey, rainy day people greeted each other with such warmth and congratulated everyone they met on the occasion, just as sincerely as they would wish their own children a Merry Christmas. The fog, the south-westerly wind and the drizzle had no effect on people's spirits. People were in a sunny mood. From the tents came gusts of song and rejoicing. Some declaimed. Others sang.”
At times like these we tend to speak of the Icelandic people and our strength when we pull together and how important this is. But what makes a people into a people? Our country, our language, our history and culture – these are obvious things that create our common memory, the basis on which we have built our self-image as a nation. For the same reason, we call to mind the events and sayings of the past so as to learn from them as we mould our society and self-image in the present.
The strength we have when we stand together stems from the feeling of belonging to the nation, of being part of the Icelandic community and sharing a common will to work for its advancement and see it grow and prosper. As the poet Einar Benediktsson wrote: “A man, by himself, is never more than half; with others, he becomes greater than himself.”
For us as a community, the value of the National Day lies not least in the fact that on this day we join hands and renew these bonds. We remember, and in part revive, the spirit of joy and optimism that prevailed at Þingvellir when our Republic was founded.
The foundation of the Republic at Þingvellir in 1944 is an event that is etched deeply into the collective memory of the Icelandic people for ever. Events like this, and the struggle by Jón Sigurðsson and his contemporaries for Iceland's advancement, form our common memory and the basis from which we can plot our course as we move on in times of quick and constant change.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It was the belief in progress in Iceland when the Republic was founded that grey and rainy day at Þingvellir in 1944, the nation's faith in itself and the conviction that all roads were open to it that laid the foundation for the achievements that followed during the second half of the twentieth century. Today, exactly seventy years later, we Icelanders have far more reason to have faith in our country and its future. Faith in ourselves. Let us have the shining memory of the joy, optimism and faith in progress that blossomed when the Republic was founded light our way now, on this National Day and on all our National Days to come, throughout Iceland's prosperous future.
Let us celebrate our National Day together.