Northern Ireland

Thomas Finlay jailed for union flag protest riot shots

A man who caused "mass panic" when he fired three shots during disorder linked to union flag protests has been given a four-year prison sentence.

Thomas Finlay, 40, of Cuba Walk, Belfast will spend two years in prison and two years on licence.

He admitted a charge of rioting and possessing an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.

The court heard trouble flared when people who had attended a flag protest returned to east Belfast.

Blank rounds

After an exchange of missiles took place between some of the loyalist protesters and some residents of the nationalist Short Strand area, police officers formed a cordon.

Police lines were then attacked by the protesters, and Finlay was captured on police CCTV appearing from an alley and firing a shot.

He immediately retreated back down the alley, fired a second shot, retreated again and then returned to fire a third shot at police lines.

A prosecutor said the three shots fired resulted in "mass panic from police officers in the shield line at the front of the cordon". Several blank rounds were later found in the area.

It emerged that the gun used was an imitation that resembled a Glock, The prosecutor said that at the time officers believed the weapon was real.

Helicopter footage

Finlay was followed by a police helicopter and was seen going from one house in Cuba Walk into another. When he was approached by police, he ran from officers but was apprehended a short distance away.

When police later searched one of the homes Finlay was seen to enter, items including an imitation firearm, a black balaclava and gloves were seized. Finlay was linked to the items forensically.

During police interviews, Finlay initially denied involvement in the riot. He answered "no comment" when the police helicopter footage was shown to him. However, Finlay later admitted both charges.

A defence barrister told the court that the imitation firearm fired blanks, adding there was "no suggestion" it had been re-engineered to accept live rounds.

He said the incident was not pre-planned and was not undertaken due to either paramilitary or gang influence. He said Finlay's involvement amounted to around 90 seconds.