The centre of Dublin came to a standstill as an estimated 100,000 people demonstrated on Saturday against US and British plans for an invasion of Iraq, in one of the biggest political protests seen in the capital since the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972.
Speaker after speaker sharply criticised the Government for failing to take an unequivocal stance against military action in Iraq and some accused the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, of complicity in the war-plans of President Bush and the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair.
There was also strong condemnation of the use of Shannon Airport as part of any US military build-up in the Middle East, along with calls for a 10-minute industrial stoppage throughout Ireland in the event of an attack on Iraq.
The organisers - the Irish Anti-War Movement, the Non-Governmental Organisation Peace Alliance, and the Peace and Neutrality Alliance - had been predicting a turnout of about 20,000 and were clearly taken aback by the eventual size of the crowd on Saturday afternoon. In the event, the demonstration was peaceful and good-humoured, with a minimal Garda presence.
The protest was one of about 600 taking place in major cities around the world. The Labour Party spokesman on Foreign Affairs, Mr Michael D. Higgins, described it as a "great moral moment". Speaking at the start of the demonstration in Parnell Square, Mr Higgins said: "There are times when the heart of the world cries out." He called on the Government to "break its silence now" and take a moral stance in opposition to the impending war.
The Bishop of Clonfert, Dr John Kirby, said: "I represent Trócaire [the Third World development agency] and the Catholic Church and we are totally against this war." There were cheers from the crowd as the bishop said, "Shannon Airport should not be used in the circumstances of this war."
Wearing a blue United Nations cap, the former TD, Mr Tomás MacGiolla, said in an impassioned speech that Irish soldiers on UN duty had died for the concept of neutrality and the peaceful resolution of conflict, but that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, did not know what they died for or why they died. "Shame on you Bertie [Ahern] and shame on you Brian [Cowen]," he said.
Ms Carol Fox from the Peace and Neutrality Alliance said: "Bertie Ahern is now in charge of a war cabinet, facilitating an illegal and immoral war. Our neutrality is in bits, we are now a colony once again, a military outpost for the US superpower." She said President Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who repressed human rights but that "the Blair-Bush project" was not about human rights, "it is about oil rights".
The Sinn Féin TD, Mr Aengus Ó Snodaigh, said the Taoiseach and the rest of the Government were well aware that "the Irish people are against this war". Sinn Féin was going to "expose the Government" by introducing a Bill in the Dáil this week to have neutrality enshrined in the Constitution.
Ms Ruth McCabe, daughter of the playwright and author Eugene McCabe, read a poem called Apocalypse, written by her father last month which included the lines: "The braying of a Texan ass/ May trigger our apocalypse". There were protest songs from Mary Coughlan, who performed the Billie Holiday number Strange Fruit, and from Christy Moore.
The march proceeded towards the Department of Foreign Affairs at St Stephen's Green, where there was another speaker's platform. Introducing the guests, Mr Brendan Butler of the NGO Peace Alliance called on the Government to stop "shilly-shallying" and say, "Under no circumstances will we support a war".
The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Mr David Begg, said there was no humanitarian justification for the war, as millions of Iraqis would be deprived of food and the entire infrastructure of the country would be destroyed.
Mr Begg wondered how "any normal human person" could contemplate the risk inherent in a "military adventure" of this type. He warned that "uncontrollable forces" could be released in Iraq: "Never was there such an ill-advised or ill-conceived adventure brought forth on the face of the earth."
Speaking as a member of the Muslim community in Ireland, Dr Fathi Akkari, a college lecturer of Libyan origin, said that if an attack took place it would be a war "against Islam". The US and its allies would be "planting hatred in the hearts of the children of Iraq and the Arab lands".
The Socialist Party TD, Mr Joe Higgins, said it was an extraordinary day and that in "every time-zone" millions of people were on the move. "Humanity itself directs that you [President Bush and his allies] do not unleash your weapons of mass destruction on the heads of the Iraqi people."
The march concluded with a rally in Dame Street, close to the Central Bank, where the chief organiser, Mr Richard Boyd Barrett, said the march was "part of the largest global political demonstration in human history".
The message for political leaders was, "You are not fighting this war in our name."
"This is about the people standing up together united. The only thing that is important is that we are part of the human race and we stand in solidarity with any part of the human race that is threatened with war," he said. The president of SIPTU, Ireland's largest trade union, Mr Des Geraghty, told the crowd: "There is little that I could say which would sound more eloquent than your presence on the streets." This was "the ordinary people's army" saying no to terrorism from any quarter:
"We won't have it from Saddam Hussein and we won't have it from George Bush." He added: "We are 'pro' the American people but we will not tolerate the warmongers." The Government should stand with France and Germany and with the peacemakers of the world, Mr Geraghty said.
The Green MEP for Dublin, Ms Patricia McKenna, said: "If you, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, are watching here today, these are the people you should be listening to, not George Bush." She attacked the President of the European Parliament, Mr Pat Cox, for criticising her over travelling to Iraq recently with other MEPs.
The Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, the Very Rev Robert McCarthy, pointed out that the majority of churches in the US believed the impending conflict was not a just war and that it would not help to establish human rights in Iraq.
Mr Roger Cole of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance said St Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland: "We want to drive the US Air Force out of Ireland."
He said the Taoiseach was the "first leader of this country to lead us into an imperial war since \ Redmond".
A former senior UN official, Mr Dennis Halliday, who is originally from Dublin, said Ireland was "collaborating" with the Bush administration by permitting the use of Shannon Airport.