Van Morrison and Robin Swann defamation suits to be heard together, judge rules

Singer and former Northern Ireland health minister suing each other over comments relating to Covid-19 pandemic

Van Morrison performs at the 3Olympia Theatre, in Dublin last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Competing defamation claims between Van Morrison and former Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann will be heard together by a single jury, a High Court judge in Belfast has ruled.

Mr Justice Colton also confirmed that the trial of the two actions over the handling of Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland is to begin in September. “(It is) better, in my view, to have one jury or tribunal of fact determining all the issues,” he said.

Both lawsuits relate to conflicting views on how Mr Swann responded to the pandemic in his ministerial capacity.

Mr Swann sued for slander after the singer criticised him in front of an audience at Belfast’s Europa Hotel in June 2021. The comments came after the musician’s gigs at the venue were cancelled due to a ban on live music imposed as part of pandemic restrictions. Morrison took to the stage and directed criticism at Mr Swann, with video footage of the incident subsequently going viral.


Similar assertions in a newspaper interview and a YouTube video form part of those proceedings.

In a separate action, Morrison is suing Mr Swann and the Department of Health over an opinion piece published in Rolling Stone magazine. The article appeared in September 2020 after the performer announced plans to release anti-lockdown songs and donate proceeds to a hardship fund for musicians facing restrictions on live performance.

Under the headline ‘Northern Ireland’s Health Minister would like a word with Van Morrision’, the piece contained comments by Mr Swann critical of some of the singer’s messages.

It has already been determined that jurors should determine the two actions.

Mr Swann made an application for both actions to be dealt with at the same time because of the issues involved. His lawyers further argued that it would save time and costs, as well as avoiding the risk of inconsistent findings and witnesses having to attend two separate trials.

Opposing the application, counsel for Morrison disputed suggestions that the two cases involved common issues of fact and law. It was submitted that the actions relate to different publications on different dates.

The court heard Morrison is relying on a privileged defence in the suit against him, based on “a reply to attack”, and honest comment on a matter of public interest.

According to Mr Swann’s legal team, however, those defences are not available because the words were allegedly spoken maliciously.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Colton held that the issues in both actions will primarily be decided on the same evidence.

“In order to avoid confusion and to ensure that the jury fully understands the issue raised it would be preferable, in my view, for the same jury, or tribunal of fact, to deal with all issues,” he confirmed. “The Swann action and the Morrison action shall be tried at the same time before a jury… (and) be heard together (in) September.”