Is it time to take a gamble on casinos? Ex-NIO minister urges law change to boost economy
One of Europe's biggest gambling companies has said it wants to open Northern Ireland's first casino. The plan is to make Belfast a "mini Singapore" – but only if the betting laws here are relaxed.
Rank, the name behind Mecca Bingo, already has 35 casinos in Britain through its subsidiary Grosvenor Casinos, but has so far been unable to expand to Northern Ireland because of tighter legal restrictions than in the rest of the UK.
Its interest in Northern Ireland has been piqued by a change in the law in the Republic to allow the establishment of 40 small casinos there.
Former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Richard Needham, who is a non-executive member of Rank's board, said he believed a change in the law will bring a much-needed boost to the economy.
Sir Richard has been credited with transforming Northern Ireland's economy during his time here between 1985 and 1992 when he was instrumental in the development of Laganside and the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.
He was also said to have helped boost the UK's export base during his time as Minister for Trade between 1992 and 1995 under Prime Minister John Major.
A change in legislation will be needed if any form of casino is to be given the go-ahead.
Gambling laws here, laid down in 1985, are due to be updated to take account of online gambling and to lift tight advertising rules with the presentation of draft legislation in 2015.
However, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland stated earlier this year that any changes to the law wouldn't see the current ban on casinos lifted.
That is a view the minister will not waver from despite the potential for up to 200 jobs and around £12m of investment from potential investors. That is expected to equate to £3m in tax revenue.
"During the public consultation on the new gambling legislation, there was some concern expressed on the harmful effects of hard gambling, such as the gambling carried out in casinos," a DSD spokesman said.
"A new Gambling Bill is currently being drafted and the Northern Ireland Executive have indicated that they are not prepared to amend the current legislation in respect of casinos."
Sir Richard said Northern Ireland could become a "mini Singapore" if casinos were allowed to set up here, something which the relatively conservative culture in Singapore has adopted successfully.
He envisioned an "entertainment centre" under one roof in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast to include bars, restaurants, theatres, a hotel, a conference centre and casino, with the latter accounting for 20% of revenue.
He dismissed suggestions that such an establishment would see an increase in gambling here.
"Gambling is going to happen anyway," he said, pointing to online betting websites, high street book makers and slot machines which, under current legislation, are allowed in Northern Ireland.
"Casinos are better regulated, more transparent, run by large companies and are experts in fun and entertainment," he stated.
"It's much better than going to the bookies.
"Why would you not allow the most responsible form of gambling?"
As a non-executive director at Rank, Sir Richard receives a salary of £40,000 a year, but said his interest in the project is focused on the good of the Northern Ireland economy.
"I don't have shares in Rank and I take no bonus," he said.
"I wouldn't for one moment suggest Belfast looks only at Rank.
"It should be opened up to every other gambling company and put out to tender to see who comes up with the best offer.
"But what I do want to see is Belfast becoming a world class city, and I worry that it'll get left behind."