An Icelandic saga
Monday 3 January 2022
With its less-than-engaging title and even less-than-racy prose, Friends in Conflict: The Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars and the Law of the Sea was never going to compete on the bookstalls, even in Reykjavik, with Alan Furst's period spy thriller mentioned by Peter Gregson.
But its late author, career diplomat Hannes Jonsson, devoted a few sentences to Reuters’ and - I must modestly admit - to my own role in inadvertently (at least for Reuters and me) bringing about a break in relations between Iceland and Britain in 1976. The book suggests we, or rather I, may have been used, although in the nicest possible way.
Just four years earlier, I had met Jonsson on a press trip to Iceland where at the time he was a fierce government spokesman not too inclined to give quarter to visiting Brit journos. I doubt if he noticed, but I think I hinted in one story that Iceland, given that its economy then depended almost totally on fish, might actually have a case in the dispute. Maybe it was more than a hint, because back at No. 85 it earned me a dressing down from diplomatic editor Mohsin Ali - for whom, it has to be said, Britain ruled the waves.
When Jonsson arrived as ambassador in Moscow in 1974, I went round to the modest Icelandic embassy in a quiet backstreet and found him far more friendly than he had been in Reykjavik. Subsequently, he now and again invited me to embassy evenings, causing raised eyebrows from Soviet official guests who were quite clearly bemused at finding a reporter from “the UK government propaganda agency” in the home of the envoy of a country which was a victim of British aggression.
One day in early 1976, he called me - in the book his version was that he made the call after it had "somehow leaked out" - to say he had refused a courtesy visit from the new British ambassador "because our relations are not friendly and it would be hypocritical to pretend that they were." It wasn't a bad little story given that there was just then an uptick in the latest Cod War. The Brits refused to comment, so I filed a piece.
The story may have rated a mid-page spot in most British newspapers - but in Reykjavik, his book engagingly says, the story "became a news bomb", adding archly: "it is likely that it made an impact on the Icelandic Government which ceased hesitating and broke off relations with Britain three days later."
I was in Paris by the time Friends in Conflict.... was published, in English in London by a small US company specialising in academic texts. He sent me a signed copy "with best regards" but it was only when I read it (or skimmed it - Jonsson's prose style wasn't up to Alan Furst's) did it dawn on me that I had been a pawn in an Icelandic political chess game.
Without going into much detail, my friend indicated in the book that there had been two factions in his government - the Doves who wanted to keep negotiating with the Brits, and the Hawks (he was obviously one of them) who wanted a full diplomatic rift. Getting his snub to the British envoy out through Reuters helped tip the game to the Reykjavik Hawks. It didn't matter much though, a few months later the two countries made up.
I never met him again, but I have fond memories of those Moscow soirées with schnapps and Icelandic caviar. ■