Militant groups were tonight accused of hijacking a massive student demonstration in Dublin marred by violence.
Three protesters were arrested after about 50 forced their way into the lobby of the Department of Finance in Dublin city centre angry at proposals to re-introduce fees.
Bricks, bottles, eggs and placards were hurled at gardaí in riot gear and on horseback as several hundred people broke off from the main protest.
One Garda suffered a suspected broken nose, one protester was carried from the building apparently unconscious and several others had bloodied noses and heads after the clear-out was ordered.
The Union of Students of Ireland (USI), which organised the main demonstration, distanced itself from the trouble, claiming the march had been a peaceful protest.
Gary Redmond, USI president, said: “The organisation is deeply disappointed at the destructive behaviour of a minority of people at the Department of Finance, which occurred separately from the USI march.
“We do not condone destructive behaviour and believe that peaceful protest and open discussion and debate is the way forward for the students of Ireland.”
Gardaí estimated 16,000 students marched through the city to vent their anger over proposed fee hikes which could double annual costs.
More than 200 buses carried students from college campuses nationwide to the USI march, with student representatives putting the number taking part in the rally at Government Buildings at more than 40,000.
The riot squad, dog unit and mounted police forced the violent protesters, some carrying banners for the Socialist Workers Party and others linked to the hardline republicans Eirigi, on to nearby Stephen’s Green after about an hour.
Some protesters suffered cuts to the head and bloody noses during the scuffles.
As the crowd dispersed, dozens moved on to stage a sit-down protest outside the Irish Parliament demanding the Government does not double the student registration fee.
The three arrested were suspected of public order and criminal damage offences.
The atmosphere at the main body of the parade was described by organisers as a carnival, with missing traffic cones the only concern.
Mr Redmond added: “It was nothing to do with us – it was interest groups.
“We had a carnival atmosphere. Everyone was in good spirit.”
Speculation has centred on possible Government plans to increase the €1,500 charge to €3,000 in next month’s Budget, expected to be one of the harshest in the state’s history.
The USI said the trouble was an attempt to hijack the peaceful protest.
“USI will continue to campaign tirelessly and peacefully to ensure that higher education remains accessible to people from all socio-economic backgrounds in Ireland, not just those who can afford to pay hiked college fees,” Mr Redmond said.
Earlier, Mr Cowen refused to be drawn on whether third-level fees would be introduced or increased in the forthcoming Budget and said every aspect of spending was being looked at.
However, Education Minister Mary Coughlan yesterday warned there will have to be a cut in her department’s expenditure.
Mr Redmond said the huge turnout was a testament to the level of fear of further hikes in registration fees.
“The Government has been told loud and clear if they continue to slash and burn in education they will feel the pain at the ballot box,” he said.
“Students, who are the taxpayers of the future, will end up paying for the bank bail-out. All we want is a fighting chance.”
Later, students from two groups opposed to fees, Free Education for Everyone (FEE), based at NUI Maynooth and NUI Galway, and the Students in Solidarity Network, based at University College Dublin and Trinity College claimed they had called for left wing support at the demonstration.
In a statement, the two groups claimed 1,000 students joined a breakaway at the Department offices and also a sit-down protest outside Leinster House.
“Recognising the futility of marching from A to B and listening to the same speeches from aspiring politicians, many of these students joined us in marching to the Department of Finance where a sit-in demonstration was held,” the groups said.
“It is the Department of Finance which is attacking ordinary working people with such vigour in recent times, and this occupation was symbolic of the anger of students and the Irish public.”
They claimed they were supported by student activists from the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Workers Solidarity Movement, Eirigi and others.
Lorcan Myles, a FEE activist, denied acting violently and claimed the groups were perfectly in touch with the anger felt by the student body.
“Ultimately, events like today’s will happen in a society where people are under constant attack from the political establishment. The arrests and attacks carried out on students today will not deter the movement,” Mr Myles said.