| GEO World|
Battered Irish government braces for protests
| Updated at: 1036 PST, Saturday, November 27, 2010|
DUBLIN: Debt-laden Ireland's embattled government faced a major protest against its sharp cutbacks Saturday, a day after Prime Minister Brian Cowen's party took a battering at the polls.
Tens of thousands of protesters were expected to join a national demonstration called by the trade unions against a draconian austerity package designed to slash the one-time "Celtic Tiger" economy's massive deficit.
The demonstration comes after voters inflicted a humiliating by-election defeat on Prime Minister Brian Cowen's Fianna Fail party, cutting the FF/Green coalition's parliamentary majority to just two.
The austerity package, announced Wednesday, will cut the minimum wage and slash 25,000 public sector jobs, as Ireland strives to bring its deficit back under three percent of gross domestic product by 2014. It is currently running at 32 percent.
The by-election defeat, and Saturday's protest, increased the pressure on Cowen to call an immediate general election even as the government battles to finalise an international bailout.
European Union heavyweights Germany and France are urging a rapid conclusion to talks on assistance for Ireland worth 85 billion euros (113 billion dollars), with a possible announcement on Sunday.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions president Jack O'Connor, the head of Ireland's biggest union SIPTU, said the government had promised "the harshest budget since the foundation of the state".
"This is the result of allowing speculators, bankers and developers to run riot, pillaging and ruining our economy," he said.
"The bond buyers don't care whether we eat caviar for the next four years or starve to death.
"Our national sovereignty is at stake as a result of the government's policies.
"The timeframe for the adjustment is too short. It should be extended to 2017.
"We must not stand idly by while the final nail is driven into the coffin."
He scotched suggestions that the rally could turn violent, as witnessed in recent protests against austerity cutbacks in Ireland's neighbour Britain.
Police Chief Superintendent Michael O'Sullivan said a large turnout was expected but warned there were "individuals and groups who seek to exploit such events for their own ends."
However, officers were "alert to and prepared for this possibility," he said.
Opposition parties wasted no time in ramping up the pressure on Cowen after the socialist Sinn Fein party won the northwestern Donegal constituency Friday, previously a Fianna Fail stronghold.
They said the prime minister had no mandate to push through the cutbacks and should call a general election immediately.
Ireland's austerity plan and a budget on December 7 are crucial steps to show fellow members of the 16-nation euro area that it is putting its finances in order.
But Cowen has refused to go to the polls until lawmakers have passed the budget, which is unlikely to happen until January.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said Fianna Fail "has neither the political mandate nor the moral authority to make the crucial decisions the country now faces."
Sources in Brussels said that the bailout talks with Ireland would wrap up Sunday, probably in order to make an announcement before markets opened on Monday.
International intervention to help Ireland has so far failed to shore up the euro.
Growing fears of contagion spreading to Portugal and the far larger Spanish economy caused the euro to slip to a two-month low against the dollar at 1.3201 dollars Friday, although it recovered slightly later in the day.
State broadcaster RTE said Ireland could be charged a 6.7 percent interest rate on its nine-year emergency loans from the EU and the IMF.
which Michael Noonan, finance spokesman for the Fine Gael main opposition party, described as "very disturbing".
"This rate is far too high and is unaffordable on any reasonable projection of growth," he said.
The Irish Times newspaper, citing a source involved in the talks, said the interest rate would be lower than that, but still higher than the 5.2 percent charged to Athens for its bailout, as the Greek loan was only for three years.
Its sources suggested the rate on the International Monetary Fund loan would be around 4.5 percent, with the European Union portion attracting a much higher rate.