Up to 120,000 people marched through Dublin today in an emotional and angry national demonstration over the Government’s handling of the economic crisis.
The sheer size of the turnout meant it had to set off earlier than was organised, with the parade stretching the entire length of its two kilometre route at one stage.
Hundreds more lined the streets of the city centre, many clapping and cheering, as both public and private sector workers came together under the banners of several trade unions for one the largest demonstrations ever seen in the capital.
The demonstrators marched past the Dáil for a rally at Merrion Square, where the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary David Begg accused a wealthy elite of “economic treason” by destroying the country’s international reputation.
Mr Begg told cheering crowds which thronged the wide Georgian avenue running down towards Leinster House that there was fear and anger throughout Ireland among school leavers, mortgage-holders and people finishing work without decent pensions.
“There is fear about how to keep body and soul together,” he said.
“There is anger then, because everybody knows that it is not our fault, that a business elite has destroyed our economy and has as yet to be made accountable for it.”
As the rally got under way at Merrion Square in the city’s southside, the last of the protesters were still setting off from Parnell Square, two kilometres away on the northside of the river Liffey.
The city centre was brought to a virtual standstill with several streets and roads closed down, in an outpouring of anger at the Government and banking chiefs.
“There’s anger because our generations yet unborn have been mortgaged in order to keep this banking system together,” said Mr Beggs.
“Your children and my children and our grandchildren will all have to try to deal with what has been laid upon their shoulders.
“The best educated generation that we have ever had is effectively being put on the waste heap.”
Demonstrators, many who had brought their children, came from all over the country, and included most of Ireland’s trade unions.
Originally planned as a protest at public sector cutbacks and pension levies, organisers later called on all workers, from the public and private sector, to turn out in a “national demonstration” against the Government’s handling of the downturn.
Placards that read “Down with cosy cartels”, “Ireland Inc is bankrupt and corrupt”, “Why no pay cuts for corporate swindlers” and “Charge the fat cats”, left no doubt about who protesters blamed for cutbacks directed against people on lower incomes, soaring unemployment and almost daily scandals in the banking industry.
Sean Whelan, 45, a public sector worker with Dublin City Council for 27 years, said taxes and levies on his already low pay were making it impossible for him to get by.
“I’m on a gross wage of €650 a week, and by the time all my reductions are taken out I take home €106 a week. Now with the Government levy and the Visa card that I have to pay off I will be left with €6.50 to live on – chicken feed,” he said
Like most marchers, Mr Whelan said his anger was directed at the Government and the banks.
“You could practically say it’s illegal what they are doing,” he said.
Bobby Kennedy, a private sector worker for 39 years at the troubled Waterford Crystal plant, was sacked four weeks ago without a pension or redundancy package.
“I’m going on 61 and I’ll never work again,” said the clearly emotional father-of-four young children, as others around him sang along to Bob Dylan’s 'The Times They Are A Changin’' and John Lennon’s 'Power To The People'.
“We got a raw deal at Waterford Crystal, and like the rest of the country we are being stamped all over. I blame the Government and the bankers, it’s time for them to go.”
In an unusual move, the Government issued a statement in advance of the demonstration to insist its cost-cutting measures were essential.
“The Government recognise that the measures which it is taking are difficult and, in some cases, painful,” it stated.
“The Government is also convinced, however, that they are both necessary and fair.”
Patricia McKeown, ICTU president, told the demonstrators that “casino capitalism” had brought the country to its knees.
“It is a system I am told by some analysts which needs every so often to shake itself out,” she said.
“Our message to this Government is that Irish workers will not be shaken out in this system.”
The leading trade unionist said an economy cannot be built on shady financial deals, property speculation, on privatisation of public services and the “ever insatiable greed of the very, very wealthy”.
“We face a Government which wants the workers who built the economy to now be the sacrifices while it protects and bankrolls those who wrecked it. We are not prepared to live in that type of society,” she said.
The Gardaí said between 100,000 and 120,000 protesters took part in the march, in one of the largest ever demonstrations seen in Dublin.
There were no public order incidents.