Is it time for Gambling Reform in Northern Ireland?

Despite being part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has its own rules and regulations about gambling. Currently the country is still following the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (NI) Order of 1985, but much has changed since this 35-year-old law was passed. The rest of the UK repealed and replaced their outdated regulations with the Gambling Act in 2005, but Northern Ireland has yet to follow suit. And the rules are tighter than the rest of the British Isles too, with large land-based casinos not permitted. A handful of smaller venues offering machines, like slots and video poker, can be found in cities, but gambling in Northern Ireland is predominantly done in the form of sport betting or playing the lottery. While there have been several proposals for a casino complex to be built in Belfast, they have all been shut down by government.

Legislation History

The earliest proposal came in 2011, and then the question was put to the table once again by former minister Sir Richard Needham who stressed the economic benefits of endorsing such an enterprise. He estimated that up to £3 million in taxes could be collected and 200 jobs created, but he was still unable to convince the government to give the project the green light. The most recent proposal was in 2018, when the Rank Group submitted plans for a £200 million casino development, and there are hopes that this may yet be revisited.

From December to February, the Northern Ireland Government held a public consultation to gauge the public response to a number of different changes to the current gambling law. One topic was whether to amend the law to allow the operating of land-based casinos, and 60% of the 382 responses were in favour of this change. While it’s not an overwhelming majority, it highlights a general shift in attitudes towards gambling that has been happening over the past couple of decades. Belfast is the closest it’s ever been to opening a casino, and it seems like the public are finally on board with the idea.

One of the reasons for this might be because of the country’s growing familiarity with online gambling. Because the law is outdated, there is nothing to forbid players from using online casinos, as long as they are registered outside of Northern Ireland. This means that anyone who enjoys playing the traditional table games like blackjack, poker and roulette, can legally play them online, even though they can’t in a land-based casino. This is one of the irregularities that the government is seeking to iron out.

Current Limitations

One problem that Northern Ireland has with reforming their gambling laws is that there is currently no central gambling regulator in Northern Ireland. Instead, gambling activities are licensed by the courts and district councils, the Department for Communities licenses all track betting, and the PSNI is responsible for enforcing the laws. As part of the recent consultation about an overhaul of the current system, respondents were asked their opinions about the formation of a regional authority which would take over control of all activities relating to gambling. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with 90% of people and organisations saying they would like to see a regulatory body oversee gambling legislation.

Gambling Regulatory Body

There has been some surprise from members of the committee conducting the consultation, about the many positive responses towards gambling reforms. These also included allowing sports bookmakers and betting shops to open and operate on a Sunday, which was supported by two thirds of respondents. However, if you look at how successful the betting industry has been in the rest of the United Kingdom, it’s understandable that NI residents would want access to the same services. Great Britain has a single regulatory body for all things gambling related and it ensures that both online and land-based casinos are licensed and pay their taxes. The existing gambling industry provides jobs for thousands of people and raises millions in taxes every year which are spend on community services like education and healthcare. Creating a similar system in Northern Ireland could see them emulate this success.

One of the biggest takeaways from the consultation however is the people’s desire to see the industry also providing support for those struggling with a gambling addiction. 97% of responses wanted to see contributions towards ‘funding research, education and treatment’ from those companies who would benefit from the law changes. For casinos wanting to break ground in Northern Ireland, such caveats are hardly impossible; in fact, Great Britain demands similar assurances in return for a license to operate.

Casino

In terms of how quickly we could expect to see casinos opening in Northern Ireland, it is still difficult to predict. The results of the consultation will be reviewed and hopefully considered by those who are in charge of updating the laws. The Stormont Inquiry – looking into Reducing Harm Related to Gambling – has also recently published findings which show that a majority of people would back a ban on gambling advertising and 80% want to see the introduction of deposit limits at online casinos. These findings will also be part of the gambling review, giving the committee a lot of information to help them come to their decision.

Love Belfast
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