(AP) Hundreds of hard-line protesters opposed to Ireland's ongoing austerity program clashed with police and snarled rush-hour traffic in Dublin with a surprise seizure of a key bridge Wednesday.
The trouble on O'Connell Street, Dublin's major thoroughfare, and fighting with police outside the entrance to Ireland's parliament building reflected the rising divisions both within the government and on the streets over plans to continue with a five-year austerity program.
Police pinned down or pepper-sprayed several demonstrators as they tried to push their way through steel barricades and towards the parliament entrance, where politicians were arriving for their first debating session following a two-month summer recess.
Ireland's government on Oct. 15 is committed to unveiling a 2014 budget featuring 3.1 billion euros ($4 billion) in new cuts and tax hikes. The Irish already have endured five years of austerity following the collapse of their credit-driven Celtic Tiger boom in 2008.
But economists and government ministers are publicly divided over whether those 2014 cuts go too far, given Ireland's better-than-expected economic performance following its 2010 bailout by the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. That so-called troika of international creditors three years ago provided Ireland loans worth 67.5 billion euros ($90 billion) when the colossal bill of Ireland's bank-rescue program overwhelmed the government's own ability to keep financing its debts.
The EU-IMF fund is running out by the end of the year, by which time Ireland hopes to resume affordable borrowing on bond markets.
But many Irish believe they've already lost too much income and benefits to finance a bank-rescue program expected to cost Irish taxpayers close to 70 billion pounds, or nearly 20,000 euros ($26,000) for every man, woman and child in Ireland.
Protesters representing a range of socialist, Irish republican and anti-establishment interests converged on Leinster House, the parliament building, bearing signs demanding the imprisonment of reckless bankers deemed responsible for fueling a destructive 15-year property bubble that burst in 2008.
The demonstrators' anger rose after police used pepper spray to defend the security perimeter. Hundreds moved to nearby O'Connell Bridge, a key transport corridor, and the capital's major O'Connell Street thoroughfare. They easily outflanked a handful of officers and blocked both ends of the bridge as well as much of O'Connell Street, snarling rush-hour traffic along two narrow riverside roads. Some unfurled banners calling for banks not to evict mortgage defaulters from their homes, while others staged sit-down protests on the pavement and chatted on their cell phones.
Many commuters expressed disgust at the protesters as they became trapped on roads for two hours with no escape route. But police declined to use force to clear the demonstrators, who left voluntarily after dark.
Ireland's 2-year-old coalition government has won plaudits from troika creditors for its success in slashing deficits, but the government still is spending at least 10 billion euros ($13.35 billion)annually more than it collects in taxes. Ireland last year posted a deficit exceeding 8 percent of gross domestic product but hopes, with two more years of cutting and taxing, to reach the EU's official deficit limit of 3 percent by 2015.
While the major government party, the conservative Fine Gael, is committed to the 3.1 billion euro austerity target already agreed with troika creditors, its coalition partners in the left-wing Labour Party are insisting that such steep cuts are no longer necessary given Ireland's slowly improving economy and employment rate.