DUBLIN – About 10,000 socialist protesters marched Saturday through Dublin in opposition to government plans to unveil Ireland’s sixth straight austerity budget.
The capital’s major boulevard, O’Connell Street, was filled in both directions with marchers, some donning ghostly white masks and Santa hats. The demonstrators were from a range of anti-tax campaigns, labor unions and community groups. Many bore banners denouncing government leaders and vowing not to pay new and future tax hikes.
“The government can’t be given a free hand to cut whatever they like. You have to be willing to get out on the streets and do something,” said Lizzy Stringer, a 26-year-old school assistant who marched in a hand-made protest suit emblazoned with words summarizing the personal despair behind Ireland’s debt crisis: hunger, depression, suicide.
The parade mixed darker themes with gallows humor. A rider on horseback in white mask and black cape depicting Death led the parade, while the horse had a “no to austerity” banner round its neck.
On placards Irish leaders were portrayed as serpents, with pleas to St. Patrick to return and banish them from Ireland. Marchers donned Santa hats, some bearing the slogan “No no no!” rather than ho ho ho, and warned that the government wanted to play Grinch and steal Christmas.
Ireland faces more protests in the buildup to the Dec. 5 budget, when the government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny is committed to unveiling a further $4.5 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes in this country of 4.6 million.
Ireland has pledged to keep imposing annual cuts and tax hikes through at least 2015 as part of its austerity program, begun in 2009, to combat yawning deficits and fund a colossally expensive bank rescue program. Ireland’s long-booming economy plunged in 2008 as credit-fueled property speculation collapsed, forcing Ireland to nationalize five of its six banks.
Ireland faced the risk of national bankruptcy in 2010 when it was forced to negotiate an international bailout. The last of the €67.5 billion borrowed from European Union partners and the International Monetary Fund is scheduled to be spent next year, by which time Ireland is supposed to be borrowing normally again on bond markets. It has begun to dip its toe back into those markets since the summer.
While many on Saturday’s march called for sterner action such as national strikes, labor leaders here have sought instead to negotiate with the government in hopes of minimizing job losses and pay cuts.
That tension between a radical grassroots and cautious leadership was obvious as union leaders tried to speak from a makeshift stage in front of Dublin’s colonnaded General Post Office, but were interrupted by hecklers chanting “Strike!”
“We need to play our part in the growing movement of resistance across Europe,” said Richard Boyd Barrett, a member of Irish parliament from a small socialist pressure group called People Before Profit. “And we have to bring this government down if they continue with this disastrous policy of austerity.”
The government is trying to get Ireland’s deficit back to 3 percent of economic output – the supposed limit for eurozone members – by 2015. Its deficit last year exceeded 10 percent, but this year is forecast to fall to nearer 8 percent.
Cuts and tax hikes already have reduced people’s average net pay by around 15 percent from the Celtic Tiger boom days, and new annual taxes on homes and water are supposed to come in 2013. Unemployment sits near a 17-year high of 14.8 percent, a figure that would be far worse were it not for Ireland’s tradition of emigrating worldwide for jobs.
Ireland is hoping for 2013 economic growth of 1.5 percent driven by the exports of the nearly 1,000 foreign multinationals based here producing goods and services, chiefly in computer and health technologies.