Ambitious plans for Northern Ireland's first casino have been unveiled – despite having already been ruled out by the minister in charge of any decision.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said he had no plans to legalise casinos as a leading gaming company set out plans to open a multi-million pound complex in Belfast with the promised creation of 250 jobs.
The development – if ever given the go-ahead as Northern Ireland's first casino – would include a theatre, an art house cinema, bowling lanes, bars and restaurants as well as casino games and a bingo hall. Plans for the £18m development were set out by The Rank Group in a presentation to Belfast City Council.
The Rank Group, one of the biggest entertainment companies in Europe, said the "prototype model" was unique to Belfast and not used by the company in any of its 55 casinos in the rest of the UK.
It is considering six sites including Crumlin Road Courthouse, the North Foreshore, the Royal Exchange development in the city centre, Great Victoria Street, the Titanic Quarter and Balmoral.
"It would be a leisure and entertainment campus," Dan Waugh, Rank Group's strategic development adviser, told the Belfast Telegraph: "We would aim to bring all the components of a great night out together – somewhere to eat, drink and be entertained in comfort and security."
He said there would be a maximum stake of £5 on the casino games, including poker, roulette and gaming machines. In betting shops across the UK, including Northern Ireland, customers can stake up to £100 per spin.
The advanced plans could all be entirely academic as casinos are illegal in Northern Ireland – with no plans to change the law.
"Belfast is the only major city in the United Kingdom that doesn't even have the choice whether to licence that sort of development,' said Mr Waugh. "We are not saying 'Belfast must have a casino'. We are saying that Belfast should have the right to choose whether to have a casino or not. Given that we're talking about fairly significant job creation and fairly significant investment, it would seem that it is beneficial for Belfast City Council to have the right to have the flexibility to choose whether to licence this."
Social Development Minister Mr McCausland reiterated that the current ban would not be lifted in the legislation on gambling laws that is due to go before the Assembly next year. The Bill will instead focus on minimising the harmful effects of gambling.
"He has no plans to legalise casinos," a spokesman said.
The Belfast Telegraph first revealed Rank Group's plan to build Northern Ireland's first casino in September 2013. Former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Richard Needham, who is a non-executive member of Rank's board, said then that he believed a change in the law will bring a much-needed boost to the economy.
A change in Northern Ireland's gambling laws will be needed if any casino is to be given the go-ahead. The current legislation came into force in 1985, making casinos illegal. Regardless of what Belfast City Council rules, it would ultimately be up to the Department for Social Development to change the law on casinos. Gambling laws are due to be overhauled next year.
Our first casino would be built as part of an £18m entertainment complex. It would include a games hall for bingo, black jack, poker, roulette and gaming machines. The "prototype model" would also have "stylish" bowling, a theatre, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and cinema screens, bringing "all the components of a great night out together in a single place".