Van Morrison concerts are very popular internationally, but nowhere more so than in his home city of Belfast. Streets were closed off and commuter traffic seriously disrupted to facilitate his 70thbirthday concert on Cypress Avenue in 2015.
The Hastings Hotel Group organised four “dinner and a show” nights in their prestigious city centre hotel in Belfast starting on Thursday 10th June last, with Van Morrison as the star attraction. Tickets for the events in the Europa Hotel sold briskly, despite public concern at the incidence of Covid infections. Given the regulations and restrictions on indoor dining and entertainment, it was highly unlikely the events would go ahead.
Relations between the hospitality sector and the Northern Ireland Executive, which sets the restrictions, have been strained. The Hastings Hotel Group is damaged by the lockdowns caused by Covid. The concerts were the business owners’ attempt to push through a test case and get some people through the doors.
The Legislative Assembly and the Executive were not minded to facilitate the Euopa Hotel concerts. They remain knee-deep in Covid-Related problems, as well as overseeing the worst hospital waiting lists in the UK and a school system that leaves children and families scrambling to transfer from primary to secondary level, often not making it. The Executive has a simmering furnace of divisions regarding languages, band parades and marches. Brexit and the EU/UK Protocol arrangement have set the city sizzling.
The first show in the Europa Hotel was due to start with pre-dinner drinks’ and nibbles. The hotel, a favourite of hacks, British, Irish and international celebrities, tourists and locals, was resplendent in early summer evening sunshine. The rooms were prepared, the food was purchased and cooked. The bars were well-stocked. The staging and sound equipment were rigged and tested.
The attempt to have the events labelled a test event failed. When Van’s celebrity charm didn’t work, the hotel owners blazed ahead.
A bemused BBC Radio Ulster journalist, reporting from the street outside, said that people seemed to be arriving, at the same time as his colleagues in BBC Broadcasting House, around the corner on Ormeau Avenue, were reporting that the event was off. As a triumphant shambles, it took some beating, in a city where triumph and shambles are often default settings in public life.
There were highlights nonetheless, led off by Van chanting, in his very recognisable mid-Atlantic, growl
“Robin Swann is dangerous! Robin Swan is dangerous!”
Robin Swann MLA, the Minister for Health in the Executive, is widely accepted to be doing a decent job in the face of the pandemic. Van and the Minister have history, with Van’s song criticising vaccinations and lockdowns described as “dangerous” by the Minister.
The star-turn took a farcical political turn when Van called out “Junior! Junior!” and invited Ian Paisley Junior, one of Northern Ireland’s most senior MPs, onto the stage. The MP joined the singer and echoed the chant in full-scale political pantomime.
Ian Paisley Junior’s North Antrim seat is secure in Westminster. Despite scandals and rebukes, he continues to be re-elected. He is the son of Ian Paisley, the founder and first leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, one half of the Chuckle Brothers, with Martin McGuinness, who kicked off our fledgling Peace Process.
On stage at the Europa Hotel, Junior played Pantomime Dame to Van the Man-Prince, outperforming his father and warming up the public for the full-scale disaster-romp that has befallen the DUP.
Edwin Poots MLA took over as party leader, ousting Arlene Foster MLA, in an acrimonious move. Thus began Edwin Poots’ MLA’s short tenure as leader of the DUP. The pantomime moved from the hotel concert, merely a sideshow, onto the main stage of Stormont.
Van’s chant turned on himself and on his karaoke partner. It infected the rest of the party, so that another heave has seen Edwin Poots MLA deposed as DUP party leader. He enjoyed just three “Astral Weeks” as leader. Jeffrey Donaldson is installed as the new leader of the DUP.
Hospital waiting times and lists still need addressed, while Covid cases are on the rise again.