Tuesday 22 October 2019

Lose-lose as gaming booms on the Border

Campaigners say they're the crack cocaine of gambling addiction but slot machines are a growing business in Donegal, writes Kathy Donaghy

Hooked: various studies have shown that slots, with their spinning patterns and flashing lights, set off a chemical reaction in the player's brain to keep them playing
Hooked: various studies have shown that slots, with their spinning patterns and flashing lights, set off a chemical reaction in the player's brain to keep them playing
Online petition: Sinéad Stewart warns that many gamblers are turning into drones

Kathy Donaghy

The Inishowen Peninsula in north Donegal is known for its beautiful scenery and as the location of Ireland's most northerly point. But it could become known as the north west's Las Vegas following a move by local councillors to legalise gaming machines.

The move, which involved invoking a piece of 1956 legislation not used in many parts of the country, comes at a time when there are mounting concerns about how gambling is growing and taking over some people's lives.

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This week, the Government finally announced details of its new legislation aimed at controlling the sector properly with the introduction of a gambling regulator.

However, campaigners for a tougher regime around gambling say it will be years before any changes take effect. And they say it's time for a conversation about what goes on behind the doors of these so-called amusements and casinos, and the harm caused to users and their families.

Online petition: Sinéad Stewart warns that many gamblers are turning into drones
Online petition: Sinéad Stewart warns that many gamblers are turning into drones

Councillors in Inishowen last week voted by a margin of 5-4 to legalise the use of machines by adopting Part III of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956, while Letterkenny councillors voted in favour by 6-3.

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 act, it's left up to local authorities, district courts and then the Revenue Commissioners to decide whether to grant a gaming licence or not.

The laws, enacted by Donegal County Council, Letterkenny Urban District Council and Buncrana Urban District Council around 30 years ago, restricted slot machine operations to seaside tourist towns. The change allows game operators to now establish themselves in urban areas.

There are fears that the votes in the two districts of Donegal may lead to an increase in the number of gaming machines and amusement halls and casinos in the county.

In Inishowen, with a population of 30,000, there are five of these establishments. At least one is operating 23 hours a day and addiction experts say their location, close to a big urban centre like Derry just across the Border with a population of over 100,000 people, is no accident.

In Northern Ireland, gambling was legalised in 1985 by the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Order. Operators must apply to local councils for licences for gaming machines and the council and police enforce the law by carrying out regular spot checks. The payouts from machines are also strictly capped and there are only a handful of casinos in the North's two big cities of Derry and Belfast.

The absence of proper legislation and regulation in the Republic has led to a proliferation of amusement centres and casinos along the Border.

There is also growing concern nationally about the large number of unlicensed gaming machines operating every day in bars, restaurants and pool halls all over the country. 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.

Former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, who has long campaigned for more gambling regulation, says enforcement of the law around gaming machines and slot machines had collapsed. "I am shocked at how long it has taken. I think there's a very powerful financial lobby stopping progress," he tells Review.

On the frontline

Donegal is now seen as one of the locations at the frontline in the battle against unregulated gambling. Councillors who voted against the move to legalise gaming machines in the county are angry that more time was not given before the vote to hear from addiction experts and people affected by gambling.

Buncrana-based Fianna Fáil councillor Rena Donaghey tells Review that she was very annoyed at what had happened. She said the only submissions the council received were from the gaming establishments themselves.

And she says the vote showed up the glaring need for long-promised legislation around the regulation of gambling. "Everything needs to be substantially updated across the board. This should be decided at national level," she says.

Cllr Donaghey says councillors were told in a submission by the Irish Amusement Trades Association (IATA) that 130 jobs in Inishowen were at risk if Part III of the act wasn't brought in. "The jobs have been there for years - I believe that's a total misnomer," she says.

Last December, the IATA claimed that 80pc of seizures of equipment by officials were taking place in Donegal and said hundreds of jobs could be at risk on the Inishowen Peninsula.

In Letterkenny, Councillor Liam Blaney says he asked for more time to hear submissions from those affected by playing slot machines, but the vote was rushed through. Hearing from people impacted by playing slots was an important part of the story, but it wasn't heard, he says.

One gambling addict Review spoke to says if he had been asked for his view, he would have told councillors of the years of damage that almost cost him his family.

International evidence suggests that slot machines are considered the 'crack cocaine' of gambling addiction. The concept that has created these machines is run by what is psychologically known as 'intermittent reinforcement', meaning that winning with these devices happens only on rare occasions. And when it does, it perpetuates the addiction cycle.

Various studies have shown that dopamine, the chemical in the brain associated with the sensation of feeling good, plays an important role in this sort of addiction.

The slots, with their spinning patterns and flashing lights, set off this chemical reaction in the player's brain, increasing their desire to play more.

Brendan (not his real name) is a father of three in his mid-40s from Letterkenny. He says gambling drove him to lows he never thought he could reach. He stole money gifted to his newborn son to feed his addiction, which started with him playing gaming machines.

Brendan has been in recovery for a decade after a 30-day stay at a residential treatment centre. But he says he still thinks about gambling every day and his wife, who suffered badly as a result of his addiction, probably does, too.

He remembers playing a poker machine at the back of a local pub when he was in his teens. He was working at the time and it wasn't long until he was putting €100 into the machine. By the time he met his future wife, he was regularly going to the bookies, casinos and amusement halls.

"Call it attraction or addiction," he says of the machines that he fed his money into. "With the machines, for many people, they feel they're getting away from something else. If you have lots going on, when you start playing, nothing else matters," he says.

"These places are isolating. You could have 20 or 30 people playing beside you and you very seldom speak to anyone else. I became obsessive. I had a good job and money was easily accessed at the time."

For Brendan, who attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting once a week, the gaming machines are part and parcel of the gambling world. If he wasn't in the bookies, he'd call into a gaming hall. His problems quickly escalated, although he kept it secret from his loved ones.

He says when the money went missing after his son was born, his wife was questioning where it went. It never occurred to her that it could be her husband who took it. Instead, she grew suspicious of others who had been in their home.

Brendan recalls skipping bills and hating the sight of the postman as he saw him as "bringing bother to my door".

"I was ducking and diving and playing every day. I couldn't sleep at night. When I'd come home after a bad day, I'd start an argument with my wife so I could storm out. By the time I'd come home again, I'd make out in my mind that I went to gamble because we were fighting. I was trying to twist it around that it was all her fault," he says.

Brendan doesn't know how much money he gambled over the years. He doesn't even want to think about it. His gambling came to a head when he hit rock bottom and felt suicidal. One Christmas, he left home with €800 to buy food and presents. He spent every penny gambling. Finally, he came clean and told his wife. The lies, he said, nearly finished their marriage. He could see his wife literally crumble before his eyes as he told her the extent of his problems.

She agreed to stay if he did a treatment programme. "I was well reared and I came from a good family. I was brought up to be honest. I was until gambling got a grip on me. I had no control over my own life," he says.

After the programme, which involved counselling for both Brendan and his wife, he says things began to change for the better. "That's seven years ago this year. My wife knows she is strong enough to walk away. She would walk away if I ever gambled again. I'm left with a lot of scars. Life wasn't easy afterwards. It's one day at a time. I can't look too far ahead," he adds.

Hiding in plain sight

Brendan has a good job now and talks honestly about his situation. He says he wants to talk because he believes so much of gambling is hiding in plain sight with no regulation.

He believes that the gaming machines are causing problems for women as well as men and it can be very isolating for women. He says one woman came into a Gamblers Anonymous meeting recently but she never came back as it was all men at the meeting.

Buncrana native Sinéad Stewart, who is running in the local council elections as an independent candidate, started an online petition calling for people to ask councillors not to vote to legalise the gaming machines.

She says, at a time when other counties are progressively acting to restrict the harmful effects of slot machines, Donegal has taken a backward step, increasing the potential for gambling addiction in the county.

Stewart believes that more has to be done to protect people from these Las Vegas-style establishments, some of which have covered windows and little natural light coming in.

"People are not socialising in these places. They are turning into drones. What's driving me mad is that councillors say they have lost power to national Government. In this instance, they had power," says Stewart.

She believes that there is a hidden epidemic of gambling in the area. "I had one woman come and say to me she was scrimping and borrowing from family to be able to feed the kids because of her husband's gambling. It would break your heart hearing what people are going through."

Stewart says the stricter gaming laws in the North mean that border areas like Inishowen, which has its own economic deprivation, are prime places for businesses to develop gaming halls.

'The machines always win'

Philip (not his real name), a father of three and former gambling addict, likens the rush of playing slots to a fix that an addict might get from taking drugs.

"It's worse than any drug - it's instant and it's never enough. You've loaded that machine with money and before you know it, five hours have passed and you'll have missed 40 calls on your phone. You are that caught up in your own stuff that nothing else matters. Those machines are the devil incarnate and they always win," he says.

In the last 12 months, there has been a big increase in the number of gaming machine licences issued by the Revenue Commissioners. Figures from the Department of Finance showed that in 2017, there were 9,612 licences for the controversial gaming machines issued, compared to 6,088 the previous year. That jump in licences has led to a small tax windfall, with Revenue collecting €2.7m in excise revenue last year, compared to €1.8m in 2016.

Under the Finance Act 1975, gaming machines, which are made available for play in a public place, must have a valid excise licence, which is issued by Revenue. Where a gaming machine is available for play, without a proper licence displayed, it is liable to forfeiture.

In 2017, the Revenue started a national compliance project on the gaming and amusement sector. The nationwide campaign involved site visits by Revenue officials to nearly 300 separate premises and the seizure of some machines.

The vote to permit the gaming machines in the two areas of Donegal comes in the wake of the crackdown and follows lobbying by the Irish Amusement Trade Association (IATA) to permit gaming machines in their area.

A spokesman for the Irish Amusement Trade Association said he had no comment to make when contacted by Review. Attempts to contact a local member of the IATA, who runs an establishment in the county, for comment failed.

A spokeswoman for the Revenue Commissioners said they were aware from media reports that local authorities in the Donegal area had made legal resolutions to permit gaming in their municipal areas under Part III of the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956.

"This is a matter for the local authorities concerned and Revenue does not have a role in this regard. It is a matter for operators in the Donegal area to ensure that gaming and amusement operations are carried out in a manner that adheres to the statutory framework which applies in all areas," the spokeswoman said.

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