DUBLIN (Reuters) - At least 30,000 people marched on the Irish parliament on Wednesday in a third day of mass protests against new water charges that have spurred the biggest opposition movement since the financial crisis erupted in 2008.
Ireland is expected to be Europe’s fastest-growing economy this year after its exit from an international bailout in 2013, but the water issue has touched a raw nerve in a public wearied by years of austerity and frustrated by an uneven recovery.
The government plans to introduce direct charges on households for water use next year, in the final piece of a 30 billion euro ($37.5 billion) austerity drive.
Waving Irish flags and banners that read “Enough is enough!” and “We won’t pay”, people from all around the country filled the streets near parliament to demand a change of policy.
“People have had enough of taking loads of crap quietly and getting on with it,” said community worker Rione Kilcullen, 45, who came by bus from the western county of Mayo with her partner and relatives.
Police estimated that over 30,000 people turned out while organizers said it was closer to 100,000. The city center ground to a halt and there were minor scuffles when a small crowd tried to breach a police barricade barring them from marching to the gates of parliament.
With families worried about water bills running into hundreds of euros, the government last month reduced the levels it plans to charge consumers and promised to keep the low rates until 2019.
However, the protests have continued in a country which hitherto, unlike Greece, had offered little resistance to the programme of painful spending cuts and tax hikes.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s ruling Fine Gael party slumped to third place in a recent opinion poll, with its ratings at an 11-year low, but ministers said there would be no policy change.
Health minister Leo Varadkar said almost a million people had signed up for the new charges. “They may not be over the moon about water charges but they accept it’s the right thing to do,” he told national broadcaster RTE. “We need to stand by them now and not make any more concessions to what is a minority.
“It really bothers me that people are out protesting about three euros a week in water charges. We have much bigger problems in society,” he said.
Editing by Tom Heneghan