A MAN found not guilty of affray in relation to the murder of Short Strand man Robert McCartney had a conviction dating back more than 30 years quashed yesterday.

Joseph Fitzpatrick (48), of the Markets area of south Belfast, was jailed for five years in 1977 for membership of the IRA’s youth wing Fianna na hEireann and arson.

He was also convicted of involvement in a gun attack on a British army patrol the previous December following an alleged admission he had acted as a scout for the IRA.

However, the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction yesterday on the grounds that the then 16-year-old had been denied access to a solicitor when he signed a confession in Castlereagh holding centre.

Last year Mr Fitzpatrick was cleared of a charge of affray in relation to a fight in Magennis’s bar in Belfast city centre in January 2005 in which the father-of-two Robert McCartney was stabbed to death.

His solicitor said yesterday that Mr Fitzpatrick had yet to decide on whether he would now apply for compensation in light of the appeal court’s findings.

In a separate case Derry man Terence Shiels, from the Creggan area, had a conviction for membership of the Fianna and possession of a handgun dating back to 1978 overturned.

The court heard that in both cases the only evidence against the teenagers was confessions signed without the presence of a solicitor or an appropriate adult.

Mr Shiels, now 47, had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in a shooting incident at the city’s Rosemount RUC station in March 1978.

Under the Judges’ Rules that operated at the time, all young people in custody should have been allowed to consult a solicitor and have an appropriate adult present during interview.

Solicitors representing both men said the appeal court’s findings could open the floodgates for cases of juveniles convicted by the Diplock court system stretching back to the 1970s.

Both men’s cases were referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) because of breaches of those regulations.

It was submitted that each had been held incommunicado, with access to parents and lawyers denied.

Significantly, no new evidence was presented during the hearing before three judges headed by Lord Chief Justice Brian Kerr.

With a breach of the Judges’ Rules established and the only evidence being the admissions of guilt, the convictions against Mr Fitzpatrick and Mr Shiels were held to be unsafe.

Both men are eligible to seek compensation under a discretionary scheme.

The CCRC is understood to be preparing to refer a number of similar cases to the Court of Appeal.

Patricia Coyle of Harte Coyle Collins, which represents Mr Fitzpatrick, said the ruling was a milestone.

“Under the Diplock court system youth defendants thought it futile to try and protest innocence given the nature of the regime at that time,” she said.

“This ruling has paved the way for a substantial number of others who were convicted in similar circumstances.

“Our primary objective was having this conviction overturned and that was achieved today.”

Mr Shiels’s lawyer Ciaran Shiels, of Madden and Finucane, said yesterday’s decision would help some of those who had gone through the non-jury Diplock courts.

“This ruling will have far-reaching implications,” he said.

“We would hope it will provide some comfort to them in applications to overturn their convictions which would clearly be unsafe by today’s standards.”