Thousands of Irish race-goers made their way to Cheltenham last week for four days of gambling in the Gloucestershire countryside, contributing to the €185 million boost that the festival gives the area and banking on returning home with big winnings of their own.
But back home, there is evidence that a quieter and more insidious kind of gambling is increasingly taking hold in local communities and towns, a form of gambling that critics say is mainly unregulated.
Figures released by Revenue show that 32 licences were granted for gaming machines every single day last year. A gaming machine, such as a slot machine, allows a player to win a monetary prize of any amount.
Changes to outdated gambling laws have been promised by the Government for the last five years. The multibillion-euro gambling industry in Ireland is regulated by arcane laws, namely the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 and the Betting Act of 1931. As part of new regulations, the Government has promised a stand-alone regulator's office which would deal with addiction, advertising, sponsorship and online gambling.
Under the current laws, the Government has no role or responsibilities in relation to the licensing or regulation of these gaming machines. Under part III of the Lotteries Act, it is left up to local authorities, district courts and then the Revenue Commissioners to decide whether to grant a gaming licence or not.
A local authority must decide whether to permit gaming machines in their area, then a person must apply to the district court for a certificate, which is finally issued by Revenue. Operating a gaming machine without the necessary licences is illegal.
The figures tell their own story, however. In a recent debate in the Seanad on the issue, Senator David Norris said industry sources were indicating that there are up to 40,000 gaming machines in operation across the country. Revenue says it issued 11,846 gaming machine licences last year.
“In other words, there are far more gaming machines in operation than licences,” Norris noted.
How can thousands of gaming machines for which there cannot possibly be licences by virtue of their location remain in operation?
Norris made the point that in most parts of the country, the use of these machines should be technically illegal because most local authorities have not enacted the part III provisions to allow licences be doled out.
"Part III of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 is operational only in small areas of the country. For example, part III does not apply in Dublin city or county except for parts of Skerries and Balbriggan. Any gaming machine operating where part III has not been adopted is operating illegally," said the Senator.
“How can thousands of gaming machines for which there cannot possibly be licences by virtue of their location remain in operation? There are thousands of machines operating in Dublin, where it is not possible to get a gaming licence.”
Enforcement and compliance with licensing laws is left to Revenue.
A spokesman for Revenue said that last year it initiated a national compliance project on the gaming and amusement machine sector, designed to identify and tackle non-compliance with tax and excise licensing obligations. “This project is ongoing and to date site visits have been carried out by Revenue officials at 285 separate premises,” he said. “There were 158 gaming machines seized nationally in 2018. To date 293 gaming machines have been seized.”
A spat over the future existence of the slot machines came to light recently in Co Donegal when councillors voted to legalise the machines in their areas.
Councillors in Inishowen voted by a margin of 5-4 to legalise the use of machines by adopting part III of the gaming law. Letterkenny councillors voted in favour by six votes to three.
‘Beneath the surface’
Declan Meehan, an independent local election candidate for the Milford Area, said there was shock in the area at the decision. "There was a real sense of disappointment too. The issue of gambling is very much beneath the surface, there isn't much dialogue on it and people don't realise the severity of it, of how people become trapped in it."
He said he now expects to see the machines pop up in bowling alleys, pubs and arcades.
According to a parliamentary question recently submitted by Sinn Féin TD Louise O'Reilly, the HSE has treated 800 people for gambling addiction over the last three years. Meanwhile, the Irish gambling market is estimated to be worth up to €8 billion annually.
TDs and senators are also publicly and privately noting attempts to increase the numbers of amusement arcades around the country. A high-profile example is the years-long row in Mitchelstown, Cork. The company Perks, which currently runs an amusement arcade at Youghal, is seeking a licence to transform a bar on the main street into an amusement arcade.
Martin Lane of the Concerned Citizens of Mitchelstown group is objecting to the plans."If you go down the main square you will see that there are three bookies within 150 yards of each other."
He says the arcade would be positioned “right in the heart of the town where the main shopping fair is”. Lane said he has two children under 10 who would be passing the arcade every day. “It is normalising gambling.”
Independent Senator and senior counsel Michael McDowell recently tried to get behind the reasons for the propagation of the slot machines.
These institutions went unregulated and they went from poker to roulette, to gaming machines
“I want to acknowledge some basic truths. When I was minister for justice and equality the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 came under pressure because poker clubs started being established in Dublin. Some were funded and owned by very rich and powerful people,” he told the Seanad, going on to say that he brought proposals to tackle the issue.
“When I got to Cabinet, the department’s and my proposals ran into huge opposition, that effectively we were being illiberal and unrealistic, that amending the law to suppress these institutions was wrong.” He went on to say that “these institutions went unregulated and they went from poker to roulette, to gaming machines”.
McDowell added: "I think it has been a huge failure on the part of the Department of Justice and Equality, starting before my time, in my time, and up to now, that we have not taken this issue by the scruff of the neck with a view to dealing with it. All the social consequences, and I know of them, suicides, ruination, people's careers being destroyed and all the rest that flow from an unregulated gambling industry in this country are there for us all to see."
Despite all this, it looks as though the machines are going nowhere.
The Minister of State with responsibility for the gambling industry, David Staunton, said the Government recently set up an interdepartmental working group to look at the future regulation of gambling in Ireland. He plans to bring this report to Government at the end of this month, but gave an insight into the findings on gaming machines when he was before the Seanad last month.
“The group considered the need for the further development of an appropriate licensing, monitoring and enforcement regime for land-based gaming machines in casinos and elsewhere that may be played for monetary reward.
“It would not be realistic to seek to enforce prohibition on certain physical gaming machines over other types of machine as it would risk further migration to online versions that are widely available on most operators’ websites and may be difficult to monitor effectively.”
Las Vegas in Donegal? Why councillors voted to legalise gaming machines
Earlier this month, councillors in the Inishowen and Letterkenny municipal district in Co Donegal held a vote on whether to legalise the use of gaming machines in their areas.
Under part III of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, it is up to local authorities to decide whether to allow gaming in their areas. If they decide to allow it, a person can get a certificate from the district court and then get a licence from the Revenue Commissioners.
The councillors were not listening to the families, they were just listening to themselves
Independent local election candidate for the Milford area Declan Meehan said that most people who live in close proximity to both areas did not expect the vote to pass.
He said he has heard many stories from people across Donegal in relation to the devastating effect that gambling has had on their lives.
In the end, councillors voted to legalise the gaming machines.
“People were shocked. There was a real sense of disappointment too. The councillors were not listening to the families, they were just listening to themselves. It is symptomatic of local politics,” said Meehan, adding that he now expects slot machines to begin popping up in bowling alleys, pubs and arcades.
Fianna Fáil councillor Ciaran Brogan proposed the motion in Letterkenny to legalise the machines.
He told the meeting that “a lot of what is happening now is online gambling. What we are trying to do is secure the businesses that are there” and that “any perception that there would be an open policy and a Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal when this happens is not the case”.
A petition to stop the councillors from taking the decision to legalise the machines was signed by 149 people.
“At a time when other countries are progressively acting to restrict the harmful effects of slot machines, we believe the adoption of this act would be a regressive step, increasing the potential for gambling addiction in Donegal,” it said.
“Gambling addiction is the most hidden and corrosive addiction and also the hardest to treat.”