- The gambling laws in Belfast are a sensitive subject; they divide opinion and have been a subject of debate for a long time now.
- The laws have been criticised for being overly complicated.
- The current legislation dates back to 1985 and critics of the law state that it is outdated.
- There has been a movement to change the laws since 2011; despite the large backing, the laws remain unchanged.
- The Rank Group, along with one other operator, are planning a £200 million casino development in Belfast, although the laws need to change for this to go ahead.
If you’re a gambler in Belfast you’ll already know that it’s a topic of hot political debate and one which strongly polarises opinions. The laws are by no means the same as in the rest of the UK and this has proved to be both confusing and frustrating in equal measures, as has Parliament’s intransigence when it comes to reforming them in order to bring them in line with the rest of the UK.
While all gambling falls under the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries & Amusements (NI) Order 1985 many feel that this is a very out-dated form of legislation that has failed to keep up in any way with how the world has changed since 1985, not least in Northern Ireland itself. Under the Order bookmakers, lotteries and amusement arcades are permitted but casinos are not.
There are also quirks of law contained within it including the fact that a bet with a bookmaker is considered to be “a gentleman’s agreement” unenforceable by the courts and that unless prize draws include “a substantial amount of skill” they must be free to enter.
As long ago as 2011 there were moves to overhaul Northern Ireland’s gambling laws in order to bring them more up to date and a public consultation was launched. Despite the fact that there were 239 responses including ones from 44 organisations with an overall recognition that the law was too restrictive and needed to be modernised, no progress has been made in moving things forward.
A mega casino on the way?
However there has been a recent development which some people are hoping may well provide the impetus to bring about change. Having previously made suggestions back in 2014 – which went nowhere – The Rank Group, along with one other operator, are keen to push forward with a £200 million casino development in Belfast. It’s certainly something that is being taken seriously by Belfast City Council who carried out a public consultation which concluded in March 2018. No doubt, their enthusiasm has been driven by the fact that the proposed development would include not just a casino but also a hotel, leisure and entertainment complex creating another valuable tourist attraction for the city. It’s also been suggested that it could create up to 1,000 new jobs, hopefully leading to a further reduction in an unemployment rate that’s already at its lowest in a decade.
So the hope very much is that these sheer economic facts will be enough to persuade even the more conservative of Stormont MPs to consider relaxing the law to end a state of affairs in which Belfast is the only one of the UK’s four capital cities where casinos are not allowed.
The next step will be for the findings to be presented to the Department for Communities in order for them to make recommendations to decide whether a change in the law would be advisable. Obviously, it would be in terms of boosting the number of visitors above the 2 million overseas visitors that the city draws in each year thanks to attractions like the Titanic museum.
The figures for Northern Ireland
The DfC has a particular interest in all aspect of gambling, hence their involvement in the consultation process, and they have also been responsible for producing a fairly comprehensive survey into the prevalence of gambling in the Province. This included many interesting findings covering both attitudes and habits and would undoubtedly be key data to be used if any debate into changing the law should take place.
In it, they found that 67.2% of people gamble, considerably from down from the 78.9% figure from the previous report in 2010. Of these, most took part in the National Lottery (46.8%) with less than half that number betting on sports events (22.8%). But while the actual number of people participating in gambling had declined, more than before were now in favour of it as a pastime, 33.3% up from 26.7% in 2010.
In terms of the amount spent on gambling, the average reported in the seven days before they were questioned ranged from £5.08 to £47.33. While directly comparable figures for the south of the border aren’t readily available it’s fairly safe to say that far more is wagered in the Republic. For example in a report published in February 2017 the country came third, after Australia and Singapore, in terms of annual gambling losses per capita. So it would tend to suggest that the spend is that much higher.
The nearest casinos
This is probably also due to the fact that casinos are very much allowed south of the border with a good number in Dublin and beyond. The most high profile casino in Dublin is The Fitzwilliam Casino and Card Club, opened in 2003, the club is in a prime city centre location and hosts a huge range of tournaments and cash games, it is particularly popular among sports fans due to the big screens that play live sport and pay-per-view events. There are a huge number of games available but Blackjack is certainly the pick of the bunch, it is the most widely played casino game in the world and ‘The Fitz’ has well and truly embraced it. If you are planning a short trip to Dublin to get involved in some gambling, you should really learn how to play blackjack to make the most of your visit.
Closer to home in Northern Ireland there are around 330 licensed bookmaking offices, two horse racing tracks, two greyhound tracks and around 40 bingo clubs where anyone fancying a flutter can try their luck.
There’s also the opportunity to enjoy online casinos, even if the real thing is prohibited at the moment. The law is reasonably clear that if anyone wants to play in an online casino that is based outside of Northern Ireland this is perfectly legal. The only issue could arise if an operator was based in Northern Ireland but didn’t have an official license to operate. However, there is such a wide selection of online casinos available, most of which clearly state where they’re based, that staying on the right side of the law should be easy.
As to whether the law is going to change and start to allow gaming in real casinos no one really knows. However, experience from the past has shown that the more conservative elements of the Northern Irish Assembly are fairly firm in their views that gambling is something to be suppressed rather than encouraged. But times do change and attitudes soften. The fact that it could also help to boost an economy that’s on the up and up could well lead to some surprising changes of heart. We’ll just have to wait and see.