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New President Strikes New Tone in Inaugural Address

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New President Strikes New Tone in Inaugural Address

President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and his wife Eliza Reid wave to the crowd from the Parliament balcony. Photo: Hjálmar Hannesson.

President Guðni Th. was inaugurated in a ceremony in the house of Parliament this afternoon. In his inauguration speech most people feel he struck a new tone, one of hope, tolerance, compromise and humility. He also cited some modern poetry, a break from the custom of Icelandic dignitaries of citing romantic 19th century poets. Here are some excerpts:

“Foremost in my mind at this moment is gratitude for the trust I have been shown in being granted the office of President of Iceland. I take up this position in a spirit of humility, aware that I have much to learn and knowing that I might make mistakes. …

It is seldom that the president determines any matter on his own. It is also my view that he ought generally to be outside the political arena, independent of parties or alliances. All the same, I intend, while in office, to draw attention to matters that are of concern to me and to point out both things that are well done and others that could be done better. We live in a good and bounteous country. We have created a peaceful welfare state. In this, we reap the fruits of the initiative and the labors of past generations. …

There is still work to be done in achieving gender equality and, to mention something of which I have a closer knowledge, in building up the educational system, which is a fundamental part of the lives of all individuals, families and the whole nation. It should be possible for everyone to find suitable opportunities for learning without being held back by their economic limitations. …

Laws undergo change in the course of time, and the same applies to our fundamental social contract, the Constitution. If parliament is incapable of responding to calls from large numbers of voters and the declared will of the political parties for Constitutional reform or review, then we are in trouble. In this connection I stress the value of settling for partial victories and making compromises. …

[W]e must nurture and respect our language, Icelandic, and ensure that it will be usable in the cybersphere and as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas in the future. But we must not become isolated: We must be able to express ourselves in foreign languages too. …

In a poem written five years ago, Gerður Kristný says this about the nineteenth-century independence leader Jón Sigurðsson, whose statue stands in the center of Reykjavík:

His hair unruffled

by any breeze

Jón stands tall

and proud on his pedestal

staring intently

out at the Pond.

Every spring

he makes sure

that the ducklings survive

and doesn’t hesitate

to hop down

and shoo away

the seagulls.

Here, and old story is told in a new way, making the past colorful and fresh. In the same way, today’s Icelanders are not such a uniform bunch as they used to be. We follow different religions and some follow none at all; we have different skin colors; we are allowed to have foreign names; thousands of people now living in Iceland are of foreign origin and speak little or no Icelandic, yet still make a positive contribution to our country. We live in a time of pluralism: may it flourish so that each and every one of us is able to develop our individual talents and make our dreams come true, at the same time enjoying support in a stable society and protection in the rule of law. …

There is one thing, though, that applies to all nations, in Iceland no less than elsewhere. That which unites them must be stronger than that which divides them. This is where the head of state has a role to play. The president must promote unity, respecting other people’s opinions and avoiding the temptation to put himself on a pedestal. This does not mean that, as president, I may not say anything unless it harmonizes completely with everyone’s view; that would mean that I could scarcely say anything at all. Differences of opinion must be heard. Healthy disagreement is a sign of a mature and civilized community. …

Indeed, I hope that we pass this test when we elect a new parliament this autumn. An election is where different policies and aims are made the subject of competition and argument, and afterwards, when the voters have delivered their verdict, then members of parliament must work together and find solutions, showing fairness and using methods that will enhance the respect in which they, and this centuries-old institution, the Althingi, are held. …

My fellow countrymen, we need not be suspicious or fearful about how we will fare in this new age; it is full of hope and promise. Of course there may be concealed threats; unfortunately, we see examples of this. Of course it is good to be on one’s guard. But we must preserve our faith in goodness:

Beauty and goodness

Two things and one.

What is more vulnerable

in an upside-down world

And yet greatest of all

and will outlive everything.

That was written by Snorri Hjartarson in the middle of the last century. He was pessimistic about Iceland’s prospects, and those of all mankind, yet he permitted himself to hope. It is in a spirit of optimism, and hopefully realism, that I now accept this responsible office, and this applies to my wife as well. …

In conclusion, I repeat my wish that we stand together in defense of pluralism and freedom, mutual assistance and equality and respect for law and order. Let us join hands in defending these basic values of a good society, optimistically and with full confidence. May it be our fortune to succeed in doing this at all times.”

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