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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 4°C
The Iceman cometh

The leader of Iceland's 'Kitchenware Revolution' reckons we have a thing or two to learn about protests

Artist and musician Hördur Torfason is the man who sparked the 2008 popular protests in Reykjavik. He’s been invited to Dublin to help plan a demonstration for this Wednesday, organised to ‘lock the Government out of the Dáil’.

ASK THE AVERAGE Irish person on the street about Iceland, and there’s a general perception that the country was far more proactive at tackling its financial meltdown than we were.

The island nation of roughly 300,000 people suffered the largest systematic banking crisis of any county, relative to its size, in October 2008. It’s managed to keep its finances in order since then, largely due to government-imposed capital controls introduced to protect the currency.

But coming up to the fifth anniversary of the collapse, there are fears that the country has merely prolonged its problems rather than solving them; a recent article in Fortune described Iceland as “Europe’s ticking time bomb,” and speculated that another meltdown could be on the cards.

According to the man who sparked the 2008 ‘Kitchenware’ protests that helped bring down the country’s government, life for the average Icelander hasn’t improved much either in the last few years — in spite of the optimism that followed the elections of April 2009.

“It feels like we’re at the bottom,” Hördur Torfason tells The as we meet for an interview in the lobby of the Clarence Hotel (the location was supposed to be the Grand Social, which would have been far more fitting, but it’s closed this early in the afternoon — even for leaders of foreign revolutions). “There’s no target, we don’t really know when its going to end”.

One thing that is certain, Icelanders were far more organised when it came to protesting and demanding answers from their government in the wake of the 2008 collapse. Torfason — a musician, artist and actor by trade — organised mass rallies outside the parliament in Reykjavik calling for the resignation of the administration that had overseen the economic crisis. He’s been on sort of a World Tour of Protest in the last few years, following the success of the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’.

Torfason says he felt compelled to stage the demonstrations, after the public of Iceland were left reeling with confusion after the events of October 2008.

“On October 6th, the Prime Minister of Iceland came onto national television, telling us a speech that ended in the words ‘God Save Iceland’.

“I asked the guys around me — it was in a barbershop — ‘do you know what he was saying?’”

image(One of the ‘Kitchenware’ demos in January 2009. BRYNJAR GAUTI/AP/Press Association Images)

The following Friday, Torfason says, there were people “shaking with anger” outside the parliament building. An ad-hoc protest had been organised via Facebook, but the young man behind it had been overwhelmed by the depth of feeling of those turning out. Torfason took over the effort, and organised a protest for the following day.

The mass rallies took off, with between 3,000 and 6,000 attending for the next few months.

“This is something people had never seen before. I said to people ‘do you want another meeting a week from now’ — the response came ‘yes’, from thousands of people.”

Torfason says that at the beginning of the movement “it was all about controlling the anger”. Soon, though, he began crowdsourcing possible solutions Icelanders might want to see.

“There was a long list of demands, but eventually it got down to three — that the Government should resign, that the board of the national bank should resign and the board of the money supervisory authority should resign.”

The weekly rallies continued. The administration headed by Geir Haarde resigned the following spring; that was after the head of the Central Bank had been forced out in February of 2009 and the director of the Financial Supervisory Authority was told to stand down in January of the same year.

Torfason, as you might imagine, is keen to talk up the role the protests played in influencing this fallout. There was, of course, wider pressure from throughout society too — but it’s difficult to argue that the presence of a large group of demonstrators outside a country’s parliament might focus the minds of those within its corridors.

Now a semi-retired revolutionary, Torfason has visited twelve countries in the last three years, answering calls from groups keen to learn from his experience.

“I do a talk for an hour, about the way I see my experience in protesting.”

imageProperty tax hunger striker Tony Rochford (Photocall Ireland)

He’s in Dublin to help out with a demonstration planned for next Wednesday, organised by Meath-man Tony Rochford, who hit the headlines earlier this summer as he staged a hunger strike over the property tax.

“I’m not coming here to take over. I’m here to share my experience, to share how I work. It’s brought me around the world so far…  I’m going to Greece next.

“When this came up, I thought — finally, because in 2008 I was contacting people in Ireland, Denmark, France asking ‘what are you doing over there?’. They were like, ‘what are you talking about?’

“We were the first ones to react to this bank crisis but it took the rest of the world almost two years — it was the end of 2010 when I began to get these calls from around the world.”

Torfason will be giving the politicians in Leinster House a taste of what their Icelandic counterparts experienced back in 2008 when he addresses Rochford’s planned rally this Wednesday. The stated aim of the demonstration is to “lock the Government out of the Dáil” — however, organisers insist they’ll be taking a peaceful approach, and that “the amount of people that show up will dictate what happens on the day”.

As for the advice Torfason has been giving them, he stresses that it’s all about listening — listening, and distilling the feedback into a clear call to action:

“The confusion is in favour of the government that’s what I understood, so that’s why I asked people what they want, what they could get behind”

So, if you happen to be passing through Kildare Street this Wednesday and a softly-spoken man with an unplaceable accent asks for your take on the state of the country, spare two seconds and let him know what you think.

You never know what might happen.

Read: Three thousand sign up to ‘lock the Government out of the Dáil’ >

Read: Property tax hunger striker: ‘I’d say I won’t last too long’ >

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