Video report by UTV Political Correspondent Vicki Hawthorne
DUP MP Ian Paisley has defended his actions after video footage emerged of him joining Sir Van Morrison in chanting “Robin Swann is dangerous” at a cancelled gig in a Belfast hotel.
Sir Van was due to perform following a dinner at the Europa Hotel on Thursday night, but it ultimately had to be cancelled just hours in advance due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Stormont ministers agreed earlier on Thursday on an indicative date of 21 June for live music to resume at venues across Northern Ireland, subject to ratification.
But tickets for the four-night run of Van Morrison concerts had already been sold and the Europa’s managing director, Howard Hastings, has blamed Stormont for the confusion.
However, the controversy did not end there and Sir Van did take to the stage at the event after all – not to sing, but to launch a scathing attack on Health Minister Robin Swann.
The singer-songwriter has been an outspoken opponent of coronavirus restrictions, writing a number of “protest songs” on the handling of the global pandemic and lockdowns that followed.
He ended his speech by referring to being called “dangerous” by Mr Swann over his stance in an interview carried in Rolling Stone magazine and then chanting: “Robin Swann is dangerous”.
Sir Van broke off his chant only to summon Ian Paisley on stage to join in, which he did.
Mr Paisley told UTV on Friday that he had been “more than happy” to stand in solidarity with musicians and performers.
“He was called dangerous because, as an artist, he wrote a protest song – now, last time I checked, artists do this all the time,” the North Antrim MP said.
“They write protest songs, they write love songs, they write inspiring lyrics and challenging lyrics, and he did that.”
Mr Paisley added: “I think Van Morrison, quite rightly, responded and said: ‘Well, actually, you the government and you the health minister have all the power – I’m just an artist. I’m not the dangerous one here, you’re the dangerous one.’ And he said that and said it with force and with vigour.”
The leaders of both the SDLP and the UUP have branded the incident “embarrassing”.
Health Minister Robin Swann has seen the video, having been sent it numerous times, and he said he was “disappointed”, but would not be distracted from his role.
“We’ve come through a pandemic, we’re working well in regards to our vaccine – we’ve a big job of work to do in health, I’ve a big job of work to do in health,” he told UTV.
“There seems to be a personal and maybe even a political attack in what was said last night, but it’s not going to affect what I have to do.”
Asked if he had anything to say directly to Sir Van Morrison, Mr Swann said simply: “I don’t.”
The First and deputy First Ministers were asked about what had unfolded during a press conference in Co Fermanagh, where they were attending a meeting of the British Irish Council.
At what was her final engagement as First Minister, former DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “It is not surprising - that particular individual [Ian Paisley] has always taken a very critical approach to the Executive and our decisions around Covid-19, he will probably continue in that role.
“In terms of Covid-19, people are frustrated, people are fed up, but the decisions we take are there to try to cut down on the possibility of people having to go into hospital, to go into intensive care, and that is why we make those decisions.”
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill said: “We know it has been a really difficult time for musicians and artists - for 16 months, they haven’t been able to work. Many are struggling financially and we regret that that has been the case, but this has been a really challenging time dealing with the pandemic.
“We are not there yet in terms of live music, but we were able to announce that, from 21 June, that is the date we hope we can return to live music.”
She added: “I note the criticisms, I note the commentary from one MP - but it might be okay for him to consider his night out, but we have to consider protecting the public and safeguarding against the concerns that we have.”
In a further statement on the issue, issued on Friday evening, Mr Paisley said: “What was parody, comedy, banter and sarcasm should not be blown out of all proportion.
“I certainly don’t believe Robin is dangerous.”
He added: “We are all entitled to our own views on how the lockdown has been managed. I’m sure some will take offence - as with all things - but none was intended on my part.”