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[DUBLIN] Tens of thousands of people marched in towns across Ireland on Saturday in a second day of mass protests against water charges, the biggest display of opposition to government austerity measures since the country's banking crisis and bailout in 2010.
Ireland emerged from its EU-IMF bailout last year and the economy is bouncing back strongly with the government forecasting economic growth of close to 5 percent this year.
But protesters complained that they were not feeling the benefits and that years of austerity had disproportionately hit the lower paid. "This isn't just about the water, it's about the last five years," said Paul, a 55-year-old sign writer who said he had had to give up his car, his life insurance and his health insurance. "I was thinking about buying a new pair of shoes this year. It's come to that. Enough is enough," he said. He declined to give his second name to avoid attracting attention to his business.
Banners called on people not to pay the new charges which are likely to cost the average household between 200 and 400 euros (S$644) per year. Up to now water services have been financed by general taxation.
Marches took place in dozens of towns across Ireland. Over 20,000 people gathered at the largest protest in the centre of Dublin, which was dominated by grass-root local groups, rather than the mainstream opposition parties.
An anti-water charges candidate beat all the mainstream parties in a by-election last month and recent polls have shown as many people plan to vote for independents as for the Fine Gael party of prime minister Enda Kenny in the general election in 18 months.
Water charges have been the biggest story in the Irish media for months, with almost daily revelations about high pay and bonuses for executives and new charges for consumers.
The government, which agreed to introduce water charges under the EU-IMF bailout, has proposed some exemptions, but has not indicated it is considering reversing the charges.
The surge in anti-government protest comes after years of relative calm that greeted far more stringent austerity measures in 2011 and 2012 and a bailout for the banking sector that amounted to around a third of Irish gross domestic product. "The curious thing is that it took so long, that something as trivial as setting up a proper water company seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back," said Michael Marsh a professor of politics at Trinity College Dublin. "Clearly there is a lot of public anger out there ... and the government need to get a handle on it."