50 000 Irish take to streets
Dublin - About 50 000 Irish people took to the streets on Saturday to oppose savage cutbacks needed to secure an international bailout, police said, piling pressure on the debt-laden nation's embattled government.
Waving placards reading "Eire not for sale, not to the IMF" and "there is a better, fairer way", the crowd marched through Dublin in a mass protest against the austerity package announced on Wednesday by Prime Minister Brian Cowen.
The four-year package will cut the minimum wage and slash 25 000 public sector jobs as the one time "Celtic Tiger" economy tries to pay off a huge budget deficit.
Cowen's government say the measures, along with a budget due on December 7, are a pre-condition to securing European Union and International Monetary Fund loans worth a reported 85 billion euros.
EU finance ministers will meet in Brussels on Sunday to discuss the loans, a French source told AFP, boosting speculation of an announcement before markets open on Monday morning.
Stop the crisis
The loans will be directed in part at Ireland's struggling banks and are intended to try to stop the debt crisis spreading to other eurozone nations.
But there is widespread anger in Ireland at the bailout and voters dealt Cowen's Fianna Fail party a humiliating by-election defeat on Friday which cut the FF/Green Party coalition's parliamentary majority to just two.
"Why should we pay for the banks? ... The euro is on its way out," said Esther Hoad, 48, a civil servant who drove 290km on frozen roads to join the Dublin protest.
About 700 police officers were deployed in Dublin for the march, which took place amid bitingly cold temperatures, although it was largely peaceful.
"We are here to object to the arrogance of the government," Irish Congress of Trade Unions president Jack O'Connor, who is also head of Ireland's biggest union, SIPTU, told the crowd.
He added: "They want to sign a blank cheque for generations to come. We're not here to pay for the speculators, but we're here to insist on a fair plan."
The march converged on the General Post Office, the scene of Ireland's declaration of independence in 1916, and a highly symbolic site for critics of the bailout who say it is eroding Irish sovereignty.
An actress read out the declaration to the crowd on Saturday, to huge applause.
Cowen has been fighting off calls from opposition lawmakers to quit over his handling of the economy, insisting he must see through the austerity package and the budget to secure the bailout.
Media reports suggested Ireland might be charged 6.7% interest on the nine-year loans, significantly more than the 5.2% rate charged to fellow eurozone country Greece when it was bailed out earlier this year.
Michael Noonan, finance spokesperson for the Fine Gael main opposition party, said the reports were "very disturbing", adding: "This rate is far too high and is unaffordable on any reasonable projection of growth."
No mandate to govern
Cowen has refused to go to the polls until lawmakers have passed the budget, not likely before January, but opposition parties have said he no longer has a mandate to govern.
In Friday's by-election in Donegal, the opposition socialist Sinn Fein party took what was once a stronghold of Cowen's Fianna Fail party.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said the premier's party "has neither the political mandate nor the moral authority to make the crucial decisions the country now faces."
The Irish Times said the budget would probably go through given the pressure from the EU and the IMF, but added: "There is a general consensus that Mr Cowen's days are numbered."