Battered Irish government braces for protests

Austerity package will cut minimum wage and slash 25,000 public sector jobs.

Dublin: Debt-laden Ireland`s embattled government faced a major protest against its sharp cutbacks on 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 on 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 EUR 85 billion (USD 113 billion), 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 on 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 07 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.

Bureau Report