Icelandic protester finds parliament a cold place

Elected to the Althing in the ‘kitchenware revolution’, a leading writer has found politics a frustrating profession, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES March 9, 2010


THRAINN BERTELSSON describes himself as someone “who happens to being doing time in parliament”. The Icelandic “kitchenware revolution” of January 2009 enticed him to join a contagious grassroots coalition of angry citizens to establish the Civic Movement, which went on to win four seats in the historic parliamentary elections that April.


The Civic Movement, a left-leaning group, came to represent the intense dissatisfaction that Icelanders felt towards the political and financial establishment.


Many Icelanders blamed the elites for destroying the economic fundamentals of a once financially secure country, and are outraged at how quickly and spectacularly their living standards have fallen.


The Civic Movement campaigned on a political reform platform seeking greater transparency and accountability, a new electoral system which would facilitate different political voices, and a new constitution.


Sound familiar?


Their demands for a banking inquiry were greeted with receptive ears within the newly elected centre-left government. Referred to as the Truth Commission, the inquiry will publish its findings shortly on the culpability of bankers and politicians in the banking collapse, and the controversial Icesave debacle.


Before he entered the Althing (Iceland’s parliament) as an MP for the Reykjavik North constituency, Bertelsson was a political columnist in Iceland’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Frettabladid . “I was criticising the lack of ideas in politics, [writing] about corruption and isolationism,” he said. “I am in the idea business.”


We spent the evening together at his home as his neighbours released fireworks to celebrate the preliminary results of Saturday’s Icesave referendum.


A staggering 93.2 per cent rejected the €3.9 billion Icesave repayment package. Icelanders are angry at the perception that they are being asked to pay the price for the irresponsible behaviour of reckless bankers.


Bertelsson, however, didn’t bother to vote in the referendum, which had a turnout of 62.7 per cent, because he believes the referendum question has become obsolete, as better repayment terms have already been agreed in the negotiations.


In our conversation about his year in politics, there are echoes of disappointment and disillusionment. “The first thing that happened to that movement when it went into parliament was that it broke up,” he says.


Bertelsson did not agree with his former party colleagues that Iceland should call for a moratorium on its debts to the Netherlands and the UK. He believes “the world would be a much, much better place if Alfred Nobel had decided not to hand out prizes in economics”.


He also displayed pragmatic instincts in his support for Icelandic membership of the European Union, which won him few friends in the movement.


Bertelsson still has traces of a Dublin accent he picked up over his three years studying psychology and architecture in UCD in the late 1960s. Now one of Iceland’s most revered writers and the country’s best-known film director, he has fond memories of this formative experience, though he does regret that his amorous intentions were often cut short because “the Irish women always had to go home for Mass in the morning”.


Bertelsson recalled the self-doubt and guilt his Irish friends carried with them, and his surprise at the extent of the Catholic Church’s influence. “It was everywhere.”


He remembers hearing the “raw voice” of Luke Kelly for the first time, drinking with Brendan Behan’s parents, and learning about psychology by drinking in McDaid’s pub rather than attending lectures.


Since then, his study of how humans behave and interact has continued to define much of his professional life. Bertelsson’s autobiography, Myself and I , sold 20,000 copies alone in Iceland (that’s in a population of just 317,000).


As he approaches his first anniversary as a politician, Bertelsson’s conversation implicitly analyses that decision. The 64-year-old describes politics as an “unhappy, frustrating profession”.


“I am a curious man by nature and I want to learn and see for myself, and having been so heavily critical of politicians all my life I find it interesting to get an inside view. I’m not a good politician. For one thing, I’m too old when I came into politics. I am not a career politician. The art of arse-licking is completely foreign to me.”


Bertelsson’s perspective on politicians themselves has softened, however.


“You have a boom, and the guy who says this is all thanks to me is nowhere to be seen when there is a bust. This is the politician. He should have had the good foresight to make better laws. The politician is nowhere to be seen when he has to take blame.”


Nevertheless, Bertelsson adds, “the ordinary voter should give politicians more slack. Because experience shows that politicians cannot be all things to all men, but people expect that. Politicians are not in the business of creating happiness.”


The hope and euphoria of the early days of the Civic Movement has not lived up to his expectations. The cathartic opportunity to do innovative things in such a small country has not been capitalised on. “This should have been a very, very interesting time to take part in governing Iceland, but instead of governing Iceland, trying to build a new Iceland, we sat down for 18 months with Icesave.”


We said goodbye for a long time. After the third handshake, Bertelsson noted rhetorically that he had only three years left to serve as a politician.


Sin é.

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