Thousands gathered in Dublin for a mass protest Saturday against savage cutbacks needed to obtain an international bailout for debt-ravaged Ireland, heaping more pressure on the embattled government.
An Irish policeman (L) is confronted by protestors as they break through the front gates of the Irish Prime Minister's office in Dublin, Ireland.
Police said they expected about 50,000 people to join a march against the four-year austerity package announced on Wednesday by Prime Minister Brian Cowen, aimed at slashing Ireland's huge budget deficit.
Up to 3,000 people gathered at the start of the protest, holding placards saying "Eire not for sale, not to the IMF".
"The cuts are not necessary. The banks are being rescued, not Ireland. The banks should take the hit -- cut them loose," said Marian Hamilton, 57, who was attending the protest with her seven-year-old grandson.
The demonstration will pile more pressure on Cowen the day after his Fianna Fail party suffered a humiliating by-election defeat which cut the FF/Green Party coalition's parliamentary majority to just two.
Cowen has been fighting off calls from opposition lawmakers to quit, insisting he must see through the austerity package and a budget due on December 7 because they are pre-conditions for the bailout.
European Union heavyweights Germany and France are urging a rapid conclusion to negotiations on the EU and International Monetary Fund loans, reportedly worth up to 85 billion euros (113 billion dollars).
Sources in Brussels said the talks, aimed at shoring up Ireland and stopping the crisis spreading to other troubled eurozone countries, would likely wrap up Sunday in time for an announcement before markets open Monday.
Media reports suggest Ireland might be charged 6.7 percent interest on the nine-year loans, significantly more than the 5.2 percent rate charged to fellow eurozone country Greece when it was bailed out earlier this year.
The 15-billion-euro austerity package will cut the minimum wage and slash 25,000 public sector jobs as Ireland strives to bring its deficit under three percent of gross domestic product by 2014. It is currently at 32 percent.
Irish Congress of Trade Unions president Jack O'Connor, the head of Ireland's biggest union SIPTU, said it was "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.
Ireland's national sovereignty was at stake, he said, adding: "We must not stand idly by while the final nail is driven into the coffin."
Hundreds of police officers and a helicopter were mobilised for Saturday's march through Dublin city centre to the General Post Office, the highly symbolic site of the declaration of Irish independence in 1916.
Cowen's government has insisted that Ireland's austerity plan and next month's budget are crucial steps to show fellow members of the 16-nation euro area that it is putting its finances in order.
He refused to go to the polls until lawmakers have passed the measures, not likely before January, but opposition parties have said he no longer has a mandate to govern.
In Friday's by-election in Donegal, the opposition socialist Sinn Fein party took what was once a stronghold of Cowen's Fianna Fail party.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore said the party "has neither the political mandate nor the moral authority to make the crucial decisions the country now faces."
The Irish Times said the budget would probably go through given the pressure from the EU and the IMF, but added: "There is a general consensus that Mr Cowen’s days are numbered."
Meanwhile Michael Noonan, finance spokesman for the Fine Gael main opposition party, described reports of the 6.7 interest rate on the bailout loan as "very disturbing".
"This rate is far too high and is unaffordable on any reasonable projection of growth," he said.