The grave of the IRA hunger-strike "martyr" Bobby Sands was among more than a dozen republican graves desecrated in an overnight attack at Milltown cemetery in west Belfast.
The headstones of the parents of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, were also smashed by attackers who damaged more than a dozen granite plaques. The memorial was previously attacked three years ago.
Police investigating the incident sealed off the plot yesterday afternoon after the discovery of a suspicious object, but it proved to be a hoax.
Attacks on graves and memorials to activists and victims of the Troubles are a familiar feature in Northern Ireland, where hatreds and animosities persist even after death.
One recent example has been the case of Danny McColgan, 20, a Catholic postman who was killed by loyalists a year ago in north Belfast. His grave, which is in a cemetery not far from where he was killed, has been attacked twice by loyalists. Just before Christmas the headstone was smashed and photographs and flowers ripped from the grave and scattered around the cemetery.
In Monday night's attack black marble headstones were smashed, presumably with a hammer. In some cases loyalists have been responsible for such attacks, while in others non-political vandals and hooligans have been involved. The republican plot at Milltown is a particularly hallowed place for the IRA and Sinn Fein, as it holds the bodies of Bobby Sands and other activists such as the three IRA members killed at Gibraltar in 1988.
A Sinn Fein councillor, Michael Browne, said: "This was an outrageous act of wanton vandalism. I have spoken to a number of families who have loved ones buried in the plot and they are extremely distressed by what has happened.
"This is not simply a republican memorial. These are the actual graves of many IRA volunteers and Sinn Fein activists killed over the past 30 years. Those responsible for this attack are beyond contempt."
Liam Shannon of the Belfast National Graves Association, which tends republican memorials, said about £8,300 of damage had been caused. He declared: "We will set about raising this money and restoring the plot as a tribute to our republican dead."
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