Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Why Northern Ireland's gambling ban is fundamentally wrong

Roll 'em: Sharon Stone tries her hand at blackjack in Hollywood blockbuster Casino
Roll 'em: Sharon Stone tries her hand at blackjack in Hollywood blockbuster Casino

Never underestimate a fundamentalist. They're not half as stupid as many people think, which makes them twice as dangerous.

"Intellectual baboons", as Richard Dawkins scathingly dismissed the Causeway creationists? If only. That makes them sound like dumb, innocent creatures, with bright pink bottoms, scampering across the African savanna, causing no harm to anyone.

In reality, they wear suits, exert a disproportionate influence on social affairs in Northern Ireland and like nothing better than sticking their sin-seeking proboscis into other people's business.

Only now they do it with love, or with the appearance of love. Because these ultra-conservative Christians have evolved.

Most know that hellfire threats, guldered from the pulpit, have no place in a rapidly secularising society. So they have become smooth, genial, respectful.

They offer sweet doughnuts and waffles at their church services. They are policy-literate, proficient in the compassionate discourse of human rights and equality.

But the diehard beliefs are still there, the same punitive intolerance hiding out behind the mile-wide smiles.

Take the reform of our ridiculously outdated gambling laws, back in the news because one of Europe's biggest gambling companies, Rank, has said it wants to open Northern Ireland's first-ever casino.

Ex-NIO minister Sir Richard Needham, who's a non-executive member of Rank's board, is – perhaps unsurprisingly – keen on the idea.

He envisages a "mini-Singapore" (a reference to a different conservative culture, which has been able to accommodate the advent of casinos) springing up here, bringing wealthy visitors with it.

Will it happen? Will it heck. Law reform is currently in the hands of Mr Fun, aka Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, who has piously intoned that his "priority is to minimise the harmful effects of gambling". He has already said that the current ban on casinos will be retained.

Yes, because gambling is a wicked, filthy, dirty sin, isn't it? And casinos are well known to be full of half-naked hussies, shimmying their nipple tassels and tempting godly souls to financial ruin and ultimate perdition. Fun fact.

But even here, in Christ-haunted Ulster, it's not possible to say these things, because that isn't the way we speak anymore. So, instead, we hear conservative Christian politicians and lobby groups explaining – in measured, reasonable tones, not in a prescriptive, judging way, oh, my goodness, no – how gambling is a costly social ill, how Northern Ireland has three times the level of problem gambling compared with other parts of the UK and how that (not the sinfulness) is why it must be strictly curtailed.

Don't be fooled by the display of reasonableness. This is still the same familiar, rules-bound, joyless puritanism, only now it's articulated in the language of social care.

Even Minister McCausland's own department acknowledges that only 2% of people in Northern Ireland have a gambling problem.

Undoubtedly, that is a serious concern, yet the figure equates to a small fraction of the population.

And the greatest risk to these people comes from the wild west of online gambling, a hidden zone where there's nothing to stop you bankrupting yourself within seconds, not from a Monte Carlo (via the Odyssey) set-up, designed for a sociable night out with friends.

But, then, as the failure to address abortion rights in this country also shows, if something is invisible it's all too easy to pretend it doesn't exist.

As long as an image of wholesomeness and moral purity is maintained on the surface, any kind of dark and desperate business can go on beneath.

I admit, I'm not a fan of gambling. I can't envisage myself at the blackjack table, in pearls, with a cigarette holder, any more than I can imagine myself joining the queue at the bookies.

But I am a very big fan of individual liberties and the freedom to chart my own course in life, without prissy-lipped preachers dictating what I can and cannot do.

Fulminating against sin, the world and the devil has been replaced by a far more cuddly, emollient-sounding concern for the needs of the vulnerable.

Perhaps these hardline religious groups are genuine in their claims of compassion for the poor, needy and oppressed.

The care may well be real, but it is motivated by rigid, intolerant beliefs about how people should be allowed to behave in the world.

Fundamentalists are still running the show in Northern Ireland. The only difference is that now they have learned to speak in forked tongues.

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