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Why Northern Ireland’s health minister is suing Van Morrison over Covid chant

Robin Swann’s lawyer says defamation proceedings against music legend are ‘at an advanced stage’

Legal proceedings have been initiated against Van Morrison by Northern Ireland’s health minister, who has taken issue with the singer chanting that his handling of Covid-19 has been “very dangerous”.

Robin Swann’s solicitor has described the High Court defamation proceedings as being “at an advanced stage”. It is understood that the legal action also involves Morrison reportedly calling Swann a “fraud” in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph’s Sunday Life magazine, as well as a YouTube video in which Morrison echoed claims that the health minister is “dangerous”. 

Bad blood between Swann, an Ulster Unionist Party politician, and the Northern Irish singer best known for classics such as Brown Eyed Girl, first made headlines in September 2020, when Swann criticised Morrison for eroding public confidence in Covid-19 measures by releasing several anti-lockdown songs.

In a piece for Rolling Stone magazine, Swann wrote that Morrison’s words would “give great comfort to the conspiracy theorists – the tin foil hat brigade who crusade against masks and vaccines”.

The Stormont minister added that the 76-year-old singer, who was awarded a knighthood in 2016, “could have chosen to sing about how we all can help save lives” or “written a tribute to our health and social care workers on the frontline” – but instead chose “to attack attempts to protect the old and vulnerable in our society”.

Then, in June, the tension heated up when Morrison was booked to perform at a sit-down dinner at Belfast’s Europa Hotel, only for it to be cancelled at the last minute owing to public health restrictions.

Morrison, described by the BBC as “an outspoken critic of Covid-19 restrictions”, took to the stage anyway to criticise the health minister. The Irish Times quoted him as telling the crowd of about 140 people: “Robin Swann has got all the power, he’s keeping us in this for over 15 months.” 

The newspaper said: “Morrison slapped his hand on a podium and started shouting and chanting ‘Robin Swann is very dangerous’.”

Video clips of Morrison – and Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley Junior, who had joined him on the stage – repeating this line went viral on social media.

The following day, Paisley rowed back on his comments, describing the incident as “parody and sarcasm”. 

In a statement acquired by the BBC, Morrison’s law firm said that its client regretted that Swann “considered it necessary to issue proceedings” and was “disappointed by the publicity that surrounds the issue of the proceedings”. 

“Mr Morrison asserts within that defence that the words used by him related to a matter of public interest and constituted fair comment,” the statement added.

A hearing is expected in early 2022.

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