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Pretend-gambling that ruined Ireland

FOR a while now, the relationship between the people of Ireland and our overlords in the financial services sector has reminded me of something. But I just couldn't place it.

I could sense the general outline of it, and I felt that it had some direct parallel in my own experience, and yet the damn thing just wouldn't come to me -- until the other day. I think it was all those reports about Paddy Power now being the biggest financial institution in Ireland, Paddy Power expanding into Europe, Paddy Power taking over Australia, that triggered it. And now it's all clear to me.

When I was a small boy, my father would take me to the odd race-meeting. In particular I remember the annual meeting at Laytown, on the strand, and the temporary Tote buildings which were assembled for the day -- being too young for the bookies, I would do my betting on the Tote.

As I recall, the minimum stake was 20p, which meant that a pound note would get you through most of the card, assuming you had no winners. And on these days of great excitement I might win some, and I might lose some, but always there was this unspoken understanding between my father and me -- even if I lost the whole pound, even if every bet went down, ultimately I wouldn't really lose anything.

Yes, I would be distraught that I had backed so many losers, and that the day had brought so little joy on the betting front, but at some point in the aftermath of even the blackest day at the races, there would be consolation. Basically, my father would give me back the money that I lost.

Thus I would learn something about the realities of gambling, but I would also learn something about human kindness. I didn't realise that I was also learning how the banking system would work in the year 2010.

Because, when my father gave me back the pound note that I lost at Laytown, he was doing exactly what the poor people of Ireland are now doing for the bondholders of Anglo and AIB and of any other defunct institution that comes our way, looking to get back all the money they punted. Looking for daddy.

It is the same deal, except it is devoid of all its moral and emotional dimensions. They are acting like 10-year-old boys who need to be protected from the consequences of their own foolishness. But of course they are not 10-year-old boys.

It's just that this grand fiction has been constructed at the highest level, in which you can gamble all your money away, but not really... at the end of the day, you won't be stuck.

So it all seems so wrong, so unnatural. The fact is, we Irish have a profound understanding of how gambling works. We have been losing our money at Laytown and at many other such venues for hundreds of years, so we know that game.

We have created this thing called Paddy Power, a deeply dislikeable institution in many ways, but one which demonstrates that if we know about nothing else any more, we know about gambling. And every day, through this monster that is Paddy Power, we are bringing that knowledge to a grateful world.

With perhaps one qualification -- we know about gambling and the way it works for people who have passed the age of 10 or thereabouts. We don't really include transactions of the type that my father and I used to have, back in the day.

We don't regard pretend-gambling of that sort as being the equal of actual gambling, the whole point of which is that you are an adult, taking an agreed risk, with an upside and a downside, and the rest is at the mercy of the baleful gods. So we never thought we'd see the day when pretend-gambling would destroy Ireland. Especially when it isn't actually ourselves who have been doing the pretend-gambling.

But this is our dilemma, this eruption in Nature itself, this perversion of a thing that we have always valued so deeply, a holy thing indeed -- this thing we call punting.

It is partly our instincts as sportsmen which make it all such an abomination. Because this is not a fair fight, in fact it is not a fight at all.

The ruling class, at any given time in history, has never seen itself as being in competition with the rest of us. For them there is no risk-or-reward, there is only reward.

So it stands to reason that the ruling class of today, the money-men, would construct a system as crooked as this one. A way of doing business in which there are only two chances -- either they win, or they win. A game in which they can bet like men, and get it all back like 10-year-old boys.

A game that is rigged.

Sunday Independent