Is this the right time to gamble on casino in Belfast?
Opponents of plans for Northern Ireland's first casino have been accused of puritanical nonsense.
Former Conservative MP and Economy Minister Sir Richard Needham said those blocking the proposed five-star complex were stopping people enjoying themselves responsibly.
New Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey told this newspaper he will not scrap current legislation banning casinos operating here.
Sir Richard, who sits on the board of the gambling company behind the plans, said there were "still too many voices heckling from the past, disrupting progress for the sake of maintaining their historic grievances".
And he claimed opponents of the move are denying Northern Ireland a world-class attraction "blindly" without taking time to examine the facts.
Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Sir Richard urged Belfast City Council to fight for the power to grant the casino a gambling licence.
Currently such a move can only be made by the Department for Social Development.
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Rank Group claims the £25m facility would include a bowling alley, cinema and restaurants as well as a casino. The development would also include a hotel.
Rank Group said the initiative would create 200 jobs for people from socially-deprived areas of the city.
Former Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Sir Richard, who is a non-executive member of Rank's board, said he believed a change in the law would bring a much-needed boost to the economy.
He said the casino was just one part of the sprawling complex outlined.
"Thanks to community and political leadership there is a shared ambition to work together spreading across the north. But it's not perfect and there are many areas where progress could be more rapid," he said.
"For instance, there are still too many voices heckling from the past, disrupting progress for the sake of maintaining their historic grievances.
"They argue that such a five-star entertainments attraction with bowling alleys, art house cinema, restaurants, casino and bingo hall should be banned from the city because gaming is sinful and damaging to the gambler who cannot be trusted to be sensible with their money.
"Much of this is puritanical nonsense!"
Sir Richard called on Belfast City Council to adopt the proposals for the casino and entertainment complex and then aim for a derogation from DSD to allow it to create its own gambling licence.
But new Social Development Minister Mr Storey has already signalled that he will take a tough stance over the licensing of casinos.
"A decision to allow casinos in Northern Ireland cannot be taken lightly," Mr Storey said.
"Casino gaming is generally regarded as the hardest form of gambling and is highly susceptible to abuse by criminal elements.
"As minister responsible for Social Development, I have a duty to protect vulnerable people and their families.
"Legalising casinos would bring with it the potential for people here to lose large amounts of money – just on the single throw of a dice.
"A gambling prevalence survey commissioned by my department in 2010 has shown that the level of problem gambling here is over three times higher than in the rest of the UK; this equates to over 2% of the population. In simple terms this means that one in every 50 people here has a gambling problem.
"In bringing forward proposals for gambling regulation, my priority is to minimise its effects. I intend to include measures to protect the vulnerable and ensure fairness for consumers. However, on the issue of casinos there is no strong demand for casinos here."
For: Sir Richard Needham
Belfast has taken giant strides in the last decade to reinvent itself as one of the most desirable urban destinations in western Europe. The city frequently comes out top of travel writers’ and broadcasters’ favourites thanks to its exceptional restaurants, pubs, music scene and cultural diversity.
It won’t have escaped many of the visitors’ attention that Belfast is also coming out of 40 years of profound strife and trauma.
Thanks to community and political leadership there is a shared ambition to work together spreading across the north. But it’s not perfect and there are many areas where progress could be more rapid.
There are still too many voices heckling from the past, disrupting progress for the sake of maintaining their historic grievances. Some of these voices are part of the opposition to the creation of an international entertainments complex which would create 200 jobs. These same voices would deny Belfast City Council of benefiting from up to £2m annually in rates.
They argue that such a five-star entertainments attraction with bowling alleys, art house cinema, restaurants, casino and bingo hall should be banned because gaming is sinful and damaging to the gambler. Such puritanical nonsense!
Rank was founded by a Methodist minister 80 years ago when Arthur Rank was making films extolling the virtues of good living. But he quickly realised that making entertainment, something frowned upon then just as casinos and gambling are frowned upon now by those same custodians of our fragile moral fibre, was much more enjoyable as well as profitable. The desire to entertain is still at the heart of Rank today.
I urge the council, after proper consideration, to take advantage of the investment opportunity and to take the fight to the DSD, which controls the gambling laws of Northern Ireland.
All we need is Belfast City Council to agree to adopt the proposal as a component of the city redevelopment project and to aim for a derogation from DSD to allow it to create its own gambling licence. Then Belfast will have a world class centre.
After all, if Belfast City Council can license pubs, clubs, bookies, arcades and music venues, why not a casino?
Sir Richard Needham is a board member at Rank
Against: Rev David McIlveen
The public advocates for a casino to be facilitated in the Belfast region are seeking to give the impression that such a project is overloaded with social and economical benefits for the people of the province.
While many living in employment blackspots would understandably welcome future investment into a struggling economy, the gambling industry has a history of undermining some of the most basic but precious tenets of life.
Numerous families have been left destitute by one or more members being lured into what is, in practical terms, a merciless addiction. Today numerous children are subjected to advertisements that promote gambling as little more than a harmless pastime.
Carefully interwoven into the presentation of some of the most watched sporting events, young and old alike are attracted to adverts based on gambling as being accessible to instant involvement.
Because this form of gambling is a relatively new phenomenon it is not yet possible to gauge the impact on participants, but one thing is certain, the history of casinos has been composed of lives shattered in poverty and shadowed in despair. Any attempt to glamorise such a so-called industry must not be allowed to succeed.
In establishing a casino in Belfast it will have the potential to subject some of the poorest of our population to a life of misery with all its attendant problems.
To deny people something that they can live without is ultimately for their good in that they may be encouraged to evaluate and to appreciate that most homes in our province will be the richer and not the poorer; will be more content and not in conflict; will experience peace and less pain without being ensnared in a business that empties the pockets of the gambler, but adds considerable to the bank balance of the already rich proprietary. Northern Ireland has long cherished its puritanical past which is under pressure from a policy of liberalism coupled with an unrestrained view of freedom of expression.
Yet the caring nature of its people remains evidenced through their desire to protect the most vulnerable in society.
This must remain the overriding principle in our attitude to a spider’s web casino.
Rev David McIlveen is a retired Free Presbyterian minister