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IRA Graves Vandalized in Belfast

January 20, 2000

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Sinn Fein politicians demanded an explanation from police Thursday after vandals took a sledgehammer to a cemetery that is the Irish Republican Army’s most hallowed ground.

The overnight attack on IRA graves in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery left 18 black-marble slabs honoring senior slain members chipped, cracked or broken.

The vandalism came hours after the British government announced its intentions to reform Northern Ireland’s predominantly Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in support of 1998′s peace accord.

The government’s plan to rename the force the Police Service of Northern Ireland particularly angered many Protestants. Before calling a 1997 cease-fire, the IRA killed nearly 300 police officers as part of its campaign to abolish Northern Ireland and its link to Britain. Senior RUC officers complained that losing their name would come close to the IRA’s demand for the force’s disbandment.

Sinn Fein spokesman Tom Hartley accused the police of attacking the cemetery plot in retaliation. RUC headquarters dismissed the claim as ``scurrilous and without foundation.″

But Hartley said the timing was ``too much of a coincidence.″ He said the man who oversees IRA graves, Liam Shannon, had been told by police that the IRA memorials were vandalized hours before they actually were.

``The first thing the RUC have to do is tell us how they found out about this incident _ indeed, appeared to know it was going to happen. I think the RUC were involved,″ said Hartley, who noted that a police camera tower about 300 yards away monitors the entrance to Milltown.

On Thursday, the province’s major Protestant party predicted that Northern Ireland’s new Protestant-Catholic government would soon collapse if the IRA did not begin to disarm.

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, the Protestant who last month agreed to form the four-party coalition government, met Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in Dublin to discuss continuing tensions between Trimble and Sinn Fein.

Trimble accepted Sinn Fein into Northern Ireland’s new government only if the IRA began to disarm before the Ulster Unionist Party’s next major meeting, scheduled Feb. 12.

The IRA has given no hint it intends to disarm by May, the peace accord target.

Trimble and Ahern said they hoped a disarmament commission report later this month would indicate that the IRA was about to reveal some of its hidden weapons.

Otherwise, Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor predicted his party would withdraw from the new government and force its collapse.

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