Address by Prime Minister, Mr Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, at Austurvöllur, 17 June 2015
My fellow Icelanders,
Our National Day on 17 June has had a place in our hearts for more than a hundred years. Public meetings were first held on this date in 1907 to commemorate the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson [the 19 th-century campaigner for national independence] and it was on the centenary of his birth, in 1911, that a national holiday was first celebrated in his memory. That was the same year that the statue of Jón Sigurðsson was unveiled in front of the Government Offices [Stjórnarráðshúsið, on Lækjargata].
Twenty years later, the statue was moved here, to Austurvöllur, where it has witnessed many of the most important events in the history of our nation.
To pay tribute to the man who led Iceland's independence campaign and express our gratitude for the benefits which that campaign has brought us over the years, and continues to bring us today, is therefore a regular part of our celebrations on the National Day.
But what is our National Day about, apart from paying tribute to Jón Sigurðsson, whose birthday it happens to be?
I think most of us can agree that 17 June is also an occasion to feel happy, to rejoice.
Today we celebrate and rejoice at being part of the varied extended family that calls itself the Icelandic nation. And so this day is also an occasion to commemorate our unity; a reminder that we are all part of one group, a group with a common history and culture, a group that stands together both to meet challenges and to partake in opportunities.
But this day is also one that focuses on self-confidence. It calls on us to remember that we have reason to have faith in ourselves as a nation, to believe that if we stand together, we can achieve great successes.
Icelanders did not lack self-confidence and unity at the foundation of the Republic in 1944, any more than they had done when they decided to become a sovereign nation a quarter of a century earlier.
But even though we did not lack determination and faith in our country, I think few people would have dared to hope back then that only a few decades later, Iceland would be a model country in the international community. That the indicators of national welfare would testify to outstanding success on most fronts: that public health would have risen phenomenally, that life expectancy here would be at one of the highest levels in the world, that unemployment would be lower than in most other places and that no other country could boast of greater gender equality.
That, in international rankings, Iceland would come out as the safest country in the world; that it would be in third place on the scale of places with the highest quality of life; that equality would be more securely guaranteed here than anywhere else and that, in a comparative survey made by the United Nations, Icelanders would be ahead of almost every other nation on earth in terms of having good reason to be happy, no matter what scale is used to measure happiness.
These facts, established by international comparison, show us that faith in our future has brought us a very long way.
They show that throughout the years, the nation has set its sights on progress and built up its society sensibly on the foundation bequeathed to it by previous generations.
It falls to us, the present inhabitants of our land, to write the next chapters in this story of progress.
The tireless ambition of the Icelandic people and our desire always to do better have proved to be great assets.
It is important that we succeed in keeping this ambition alive, while at the same time letting our achievements remind us that we have reason to be grateful for what past generations have done and draw encouragement from their example to press on to even greater heights for the benefit of the generations that will come after us.
The past year or two has given us even greater reason to look forward to the future with optimism. Iceland now holds its head high in the international community after overcoming its greatest economic challenge of modern times through sustained effort and a sincere commitment.
Household debt has been reduced; more and more jobs have been added and their number has never been greater; purchasing power is now greater than it has ever been in this country; inflation is low and the time is fast approaching when we will be able to reduce the national debt thanks to the capital that will flow into the Treasury to enable us to lift the capital controls. This will be of benefit for the entire community.
This watershed means we can concentrate our energies on looking ahead. On making use of the opportunities that await us and tackling the challenge of making a good society even better. There will never be a shortage of tasks there – both in consolidating and maintaining the basis we stand on and in raising living standards, not least for those who have the smallest share of the cake.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Our National Day on 17 June means many things to us. It is a day to rejoice over the successes that have been achieved in building up our society; it is a day to remember the pioneers of the past who carved out a future for their nation by their struggles and a day to harness the power we have when we pull together and set our sights still higher than before for the benefit of coming generations.
Icelanders have already achieved results that must be considered remarkable. Almost wherever one looks, whether in sports competitions, the arts or the sciences, our tiny nation has many individual representatives who stand out prominently in the world at large.
It has been our good fortune here in Iceland to take major decisions, and travel new roads, even at times when we have had few models – and sometimes none at all – to follow. The result is that Icelanders have often been in the front line in many areas of human progress.
One hundred years have now passed since women in Iceland acquired the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
This centenary occasion will be celebrated specially on 19 June – in two days' time – in many different ways all over the country with ceremonies and events where our national cultural heritage will be in the limelight.
Many companies and institutions have welcomed the government's suggestion that their workers should have the day off from 12 noon onwards wherever possible on Friday in honour of this important occasion.
It should be remembered that it was not only women who gained the right to vote in parliamentary elections in 1915: the same right was also extended to labourers and men in the poorer ranks of society who up to then had not had this right.
It was then enshrined in law in Iceland that the right to vote was to be general, being based on a certain age, though those who had not paid back poor-relief grants from the local authorities were still excluded from voting. This was an extremely important milestone in our society's democratic development and in realising the vision of Iceland as a country where all citizens should enjoy equal rights.
We will continue to work for greater equality of rights and self-determination in Icelandic society. In this it is important to recall the victories that have already been won and have them encourage us to go on and do even better.
For many years now, Iceland has been a leader in gender equality; for the past six years, our country has been at the top of the gender gap ranking by the World Economic Forum. This ranking, together with other international surveys, testifies to the good results that have been achieved in the area of gender equality in recent years.
This is very pleasing and we should be proud of it. We have a lot to offer the world in this area, and we should support gender equality projects in other parts of the globe.
But gender equality is not the only field in which we have made progress.
We have achieved success on many, many fronts where we have secured greater equality of opportunity and rights in society. While other nations are experiencing significantly greater inequality in the distribution of wealth, economic equality has been growing in Iceland.
Just a few days ago, the results of an international survey were announced which showed that equality in income in Iceland has never been greater than it is now. Inequality in the distribution of wealth has never been smaller, in addition to which the proportion of people living in poverty was lowest in Iceland and has never been lower.
We should take this as a firm encouragement to do even better.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I mentioned that the United Nations regard Icelanders as having more to feel happy about than almost any other nation on earth. In fact there is only one other country where people are seen as enjoying greater quality of life than we have in Iceland. But what do we ourselves feel?
Sometimes it seems that more attention is given to the negative side of things than to identifying what has turned out well and using it as a springboard towards even better results. We can certainly make improvements in many areas, but the best way of doing this is to assign a proper value to the good things we have done and then to do more of them and less of the others.
We should also, on festive occasions like this one, allow ourselves to take pleasure in the good things we have and allow our happiness to stimulate us to make further progress.
We all know, of course, that real happiness can never be measured in statistics. All the same, we should remember the wisdom of the old saying that ‘a guest's eye sees clearly.' Our rankings in the surveys I have mentioned tell us that we in Iceland have plenty of reasons to be happy. It is up to us to approach them with an open mind, see them, and put them to use.
As I have said, Iceland has done well since it became an independent and sovereign state. It is satisfying to see that Denmark has also prospered greatly since we went our separate ways: in fact, Denmark comes right behind Iceland on the UN World Happiness Index.
Tomorrow Denmark goes to the polls. When the prime minister announced the election, she said Denmark was the best country in the world. The leader of the opposition made no criticism of this, but said that while Denmark was certainly the best country in the world, it could be even better.
My fellow Icelanders and others celebrating our National Day,
Having a National Day reminds us that we all have at least one thing in common: the desire to make our country better, make our society better and give future generations a secure future in a good country. Whether we live and work here in the capital, or till the soil, or catch fish, or guide tourists or do other types of work, we are all working in the service of our community. Our success depends on our working in different roles, yet all working together.
First and foremost, this day reminds us of our shared obligation and our aim as a nation to stand guard over the achievements of earlier generations from which we benefit today and to leave an even better society to the coming generations so that Iceland will continue in the future to be a good place to live.
The seventeenth of June is a day to be happy, a day to reaffirm our solidarity, a day to recall the past, a day to remind ourselves of our capabilities and prepare to make new advances.
Something else of historical importance happened on the same day that Icelandic women and male labourers received the vote in 1915. It was on that same day that Iceland acquired its own national flag. This flag that is the symbol of our history, our freedom, our democracy and equality; this flag that we fly proudly today all over the country.
Let us celebrate our National Day together.