DUBLIN – An Irish government minister said Saturday he expects an agreement within the next 24 hours on an EU-IMF bailout loan for Ireland worth approximately euro85 billion ($115 billion), but he rejected reports that the aid could come with a punitively high interest rate.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan said all sides in the 10-day-old financial rescue talks in Dublin want at least "an outline agreement" before markets open Monday.
Ireland has been priced out of bond markets and needs a loan to fund its annual deficits and its cash-strapped banks. But many analysts doubt that the country will be able to afford the repayments on an international bailout unless the interest rates are low.
European Union diplomats confirmed that the finance ministers of the 16-nation eurozone, which includes Ireland, would discuss the emerging EU-IMF loan for the Irish at a hastily arranged meeting in Brussels on Sunday.
EU spokesman Bernard Bulcke said finance ministers from the 11 other EU members — including Britain, Denmark and Sweden, which have pledged their own bilateral loans to Dublin — would join the Brussels meeting later Sunday in a sign that a more comprehensive negotiated deal could be on the table.
Speaking to Irish state broadcasters RTE, Ryan rejected reports carried by RTE and Dublin newspapers that at least part of the bailout would come with an interest rate of 6.7 percent.
"I think that figure was inaccurate. And it was unfortunate because it did scare a hell of a lot of people," Ryan said.
He declined to speculate what the average interest rate would be, but said it would be nearer the 5.2 percent average being paid by Greece for its euro110 billion ($150 billion) EU-IMF bailout in May.
Ryan said whatever terms were agreed "have to make sense for us, so that we're able to pay it back."
A second government minister, Noel Dempsey, sounded less confident of any announcement Sunday.
"Our mandate is to get the very best deal, one that will allow us to get out of the present situation," said Dempsey, the transport minister. "It's more important to get it right than to get it quick. ... Let's just wait and see what the deal is."
Their comments came as more than 15,000 people marched to Dublin's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, to denounce the imminent bailout as a disastrous deal for Ireland.
The protest, organized by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, also highlighted fears that Ireland's next emergency budget could drive thousands into poverty or bankruptcy. The 2011 budget being unveiled Dec. 7 includes euro4.5 billion in cuts and euro1.5 billion in new taxes — the fourth emergency budget in three years designed to reverse Ireland's runaway deficits.
It was the first significant protest since the International Monetary Fund and European banking experts descended on Dublin last week. But the turnout was much poorer than the 50,000 that police expected and organizers claimed. Some blamed the unusually wintry weather, others a national tendency to endure or emigrate from tough times rather than fight them.
The protesters — led by commentator Fintan O'Toole and folk singers on a podium in front of the General Post Office, headquarters of Ireland's 1916 rebellion against British rule — called for Ireland to default on its debts to international banks, just as Iceland and Argentina had done.
O'Toole said Prime Minister Brian Cowen had "no mandate" to negotiate a bailout with EU and IMF officials "who nobody elected."
O'Toole — whose recent book "Ship of Fools" documents how Ireland's government, bankers and speculators combined to sink the country's Celtic Tiger economy — accused Cowen of "expecting us to behave ourselves and pay off the gambling debts of our masters."
Whenever speakers mentioned government leaders and the foreign bankers, people in the crowd shouted "Liars!" and "Out! Out! Out!" Some also booed their own union leaders at the podium, complaining that they hadn't done nearly enough to mobilize public anger against the imminent cuts.
"If our leaders had called on us to hit the streets every week for the past year, instead of just this once, there's no chance that Ireland would be facing an IMF bailout now," said psychology student Pixie ni hEachthigheirn, 27, with an Arab headscarf across her face. She brought along a hand-painted banner denouncing the foreign bankers as "Zionists" — but didn't have anyone to help her hold it up.
The main rally dispersed peacefully, but a few hundred mostly youthful militants then traveled across the River Liffey to the government complex housing Cowen's office and Dail Eireann, the parliament.
Protesters covering their faces with scarves and caps hurled bottles, firecrackers and eggs at police lines and burned several placards on the pavement. Police largely stood their ground, but at one point charged into the crowd to grab one man seen throwing firecrackers.
However, the police press office said none of the protesters was arrested. The protesters dispersed within an hour and no injuries were reported.
Protesters at the main O'Connell Street rally carried signs bearing the slogans "It's not out fault, we must default" and "No country for young men," a reference to a surge in emigration amid a 13.6 percent unemployment rate.
They said ordinary people had already lost too much of their income following two years of cuts and tax rises, and noted that Ireland's latest austerity plans call for the minimum wage to be cut by euro1 an hour.
"People want the measures to be more equal. It can't be right to cut the minimum wage to pay to bail out the banks," said Trish Gormley, a 31-year-old Dublin accountant.
"People are worried that it seems we'll be charged a higher interest rate than Greece was asked to pay for its bailout. That just doesn't seem fair," she said.
Associated Press writers Peter Morrison in Dublin and Robert Wielaard in Brussels contributed to this report.