After a week that brought Ireland a pledge of a $114 billion international rescue package and the toughest austerity program of any country in Europe, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to Dublin’s streets on Saturday to protest wide cuts in the country’s welfare programmes and in public-sector jobs.
The economic shocks of the past 10 days have been the culmination of two years in which the economy has shrunk by about 15%, faster than any other European economy.
The political turmoil has raised questions about the ability of the government of Prime Minister Brian Cowen to secure backing for the austerity package when it is presented to Parliament on December 7. The coalition government was weakened last week by a split between the Fianna Fail party, which Cowen leads, and its main coalition partner, the Green Party.
The peaceful protests seemed to indicate the unrest may not lead to street confrontations.
Organisers had called for a “family friendly” demonstration, and the occasion passed with few incidents, apart from isolated scuffles.
“Everything’s collapsing,” one woman said.
An older man placed blame for the crisis on the Cowen government, for failing to rein in the runaway property speculation that left Ireland’s banks with a mountain of bad debt. “The government has robbed us,” he said. “They’ve destroyed the country that we’ve built up over a number of years. They’ve just destroyed it.”
In the meantime, prime minister Brian Cowen has rejected calls for his or the government’s resignation.
He has said he intends to see the rescue package and the austerity program approved by Parliament before calling an election, the reverse of what Sinn Fein, among other groups, has demanded.