Van Morrison sued for libel over 'dangerous' anti-lockdown remarks

Belfast-born musician has become a vocal lockdown critic

Northern Ireland’s health minister is suing Sir Van Morrison after the singer branded him “very dangerous” over his handling of Covid-19 restrictions.

The legal action focuses on a high-profile incident at a hotel in Belfast in the summer when Sir Van took to a stage and criticised health chief Robin Swann.

Sir Van has gained a reputation as a vocal lockdown critic since the coronavirus outbreak, and has previously accused the government of “taking our freedoms” over restrictions implemented to reduce the spread of the disease.

The defamation proceedings also cite two subsequent incidents when the singer elaborated on his views on Mr Swann.

Sir Van was reported to have described the minister as a “fraud” in comments to local media.

The second relates to content the songwriter uploaded on YouTube in which he addressed the Europa Hotel controversy. In that video, he again criticises the minister and calls him “dangerous”, albeit referring to him incorrectly as “Robert Swann”.

Mr Swann is being represented in the action by renowned libel lawyer Paul Tweed.

“Proceedings are at an advanced stage with an anticipated hearing date early in 2022,” he said.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 15, 2012 Northern Irish blues and rock singer Van Morrison performs on the stage of the Olympia concert hall in Paris, on September 14, 2012.  The Northern Irish musician Van Morrison is about to release three songs in which he denounces the lockdown measures put in place at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, he announced on September 18, 2020 on his official website. / AFP / THOMAS SAMSON

It is understood Mr Swann’s legal team sent a writ to the singer in June and followed that up with a detailed statement of claim in September.

Sir Van’s lawyers are understood to have responded to the claim last month.

The Europa Hotel incident in June unfolded when a concert Sir Van was supposed to perform at was cancelled at late notice due to Covid-19 restrictions.

At one point, while criticising Mr Swann on stage, Sir Van called up Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley from the audience to join him. Mr Paisley joined in with the singer in chanting that the Stormont minister was “very dangerous”.

Video footage of the episode went viral.

Mr Swann said Mr Paisley subsequently apologised for the incident. It is understood the health minister is not taking legal action against the North Antrim MP.

The Belfast-born singer has been an ardent critic of coronavirus restrictions, particularly those that prevented live music performances.

He has now released three songs targeting lockdown restrictions, bearing the titles 'No More Lockdown', 'Born to Be Free' and 'As I Walked Out'.

'No More Lockdown' also likened the restrictions to slavery.

The 75-year-old has previously said lockdown orders were “based on pseudoscience".

“I call on my fellow singers, musicians, writers, producers, promoters and others in the industry to fight with me on this. Come forward, stand up, fight the pseudoscience and speak up,” he said in 2020.

Mr Swann subsequently responded to those songs in a piece written for the magazine Rolling Stone.

In that op-ed, the health minister described the singer’s claims as “bizarre and irresponsible”.

He said some of what he was claiming was “actually dangerous” and would provide “great comfort to the conspiracy theorists”.

Sir Van’s solicitor Joe Rice confirmed that the singer will defend the proceedings issued by Mr Swann.

“Mr Morrison regrets that Mr Swann considered it necessary to issue proceedings,” said Mr Rice.

“He is disappointed by the publicity that surrounds the issue of the proceedings also. Mr Morrison has consistently campaigned for the relaxation of the coronavirus regulations, believing them to be unlawful insofar as they imposed a blanket ban on the ability of all musicians to perform live music, thereby endangering their livelihoods.

“Such was his strength of feeling on this matter that he instructed this firm in June 2021 to issue a High Court challenge to the legality of those regulations, arguing that they were unlawful. It was only after he brought those proceedings that the regulations were relaxed by the Assembly, thereby preventing the need for a determination of the issue by the High Court.

“This firm can confirm that a defence has been served on behalf of Mr Morrison to the proceedings brought by Mr Swann.

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

Updated: November 8th 2021, 12:49 PM