A former soldier who participated in a riot at a north Belfast interface told police he had a psychotic breakdown and felt he was fighting the Taliban, a court has heard.
Co Antrim man James Burns – who served two tours of Afghanistan during his career in the Army – was handed a three-year sentence at Belfast Crown Court after he admitted being involved in a riot in July 2015.
The court heard the 26-year-old, from Hydepark Manor in Newtownabbey, was present for around three hours, during which time he was seen throwing missiles such as bottles and bricks at police lines. At one point, he was also observed setting a bin on fire.
Despite a request from his barrister that his case should be deemed exceptional and that he should be spared a jail term due to significant mental health issues, Burns was handed a three-year sentence.
He will spend 18 months of his sentence in prison, with the remaining 18 months on licence when he is released.
After sentence was passed and he was being led from the dock in handcuffs, Burns shouted that the sentence was a “f***ing disgrace” and said “give that 18 months to Tony Blair”.
Before she passed sentence, Judge McCaffrey was told that trouble flared in the area on July 13, 2015 following a Parade Commission’s determination banning an Orange lodge and loyalist band from returning past the nationalist Ardoyne shop fronts area.
Around 25 police officers were injured after police lines were pelted with masonry, bricks, bottles and other items including fireworks.
The riot was recorded by police and Burns was captured on CCTV. Present for around three hours, a prosecutor said Burns was “masked at times, and other times he wasn’t”.
Two days after the riot, Burns attended a police station voluntarily and said “I’m here to hold my hands up”. He made full admissions of his involvement and claimed he thought he had a psychotic breakdown on the day in question, and was fighting the Taliban.
Telling the court the Crown accepted Burns had mental health issues, the prosecutor said he came before the court with 47 previous convictions.
Defence barrister Declan Quinn confirmed Burns suffered from a range of mental health deficiencies – many which are linked to his former career in the Army.
Mr Quinn revealed Burns has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, suffers from nightmares about strangling people and “hears the voice of a friend who was killed in Afghanistan”.
Burns has also abused Tramadol and other medication and has a history of drugs and alcohol misuse.
Regarding the offence itself, Mr Quinn said Burns regretted his involvement and is not sectarian but rather became involved in a “crowd mentality”.
Mr Quinn concluded by saying: “He is not a bad or dangerous individual, but he got himself into a position where alcohol played a major factor ... and there was an element of playing to the ground and playing to his peers.”