Ministers want a limit on stakes at casinos

Ministers want a betting limit to apply in Ireland’s first legalised casinos and the installation of CCTV cameras so that gardai can study footage when required.

The measures were discussed by the cabinet last week, which made Michael McDowell, the justice minister, scrap his plans to close Ireland’s gaming clubs. A regulatory commission will now be set up to oversee a legalised gambling industry.

At the cabinet meeting, ministers supported the idea of allowing local authorities to decide whether casinos could be established in their area, a move that should limit the number of outlets. They also want to force casino owners to produce tax-clearance certificates before licences are granted.

According to government sources, a number of ministers believed McDowell’s idea to prohibit gambling in clubs would result in the industry “going underground”.

There were also concerns that the government parties would lose support by angering punters who attend gambling clubs and employees who work in the industry.

Some ministers feared that the government would be accused of trying to introduce “nanny-state” measures and could even lose support from people with no interest in gambling, but who do not believe it should be prohibited.

“One of the big issues was the fact that there is gambling in other countries and it’s available here in other forms,” one minister said. “It seemed pointless stopping it in these establishments, especially when people can gamble on the internet at home. It made no sense to shut down these clubs when you could just regulate them instead.

“Regulation also made more sense in that it wouldn’t cut off a social outlet that many people enjoy, yet it would ensure that the concerns about the gambling industry and possible links to money laundering were addressed.”

The regulatory commission will be asked to examine the issues discussed at cabinet level and look at best practice in other countries. It could draw up guidelines on the size of casinos, similar to those in other countries.

Although a limit on stakes is favoured by several cabinet ministers, this may prove difficult to introduce.

The decision to regulate casinos has been welcomed by the Gaming and Leisure Association, which represents the majority of clubs in Ireland. David Hall, its spokesman, said the industry already had high standards and that it supported a regulatory framework.

He said casinos already used CCTV cameras and that gardai were able to view recorded footage if they wished. Clubs had their own limits on the amount of money a punter could gamble in certain games, but might not support regulation of stakes.

“Our opinion would be that our current procedures are better than those in use by bookies and that this should be recognised,” said Hall. “Anyone entering our clubs needs to show a recognised form of ID

and has to join using their address. This means they can’t operate anonymously and gamble large amounts without us knowing who they are.

“We have campaigned to be included in the legislation that obliges banks to inform gardai if large amounts of money are being moved around. So we would be supportive of most steps that are likely to be recommended. If, however, we were to be forced to limit the stakes according to amounts decided by a regulatory authority, our first argument against such a move would be that it should happen in bookies as well.”

Hall, whose organisation represents 12 of the estimated 20 casinos in the country, said he would be lobbying for current clubs to be inspected and then allowed to stay open if they are shown to be operating correctly. This would mean existing casinos that meet regulations would not have to close and apply afresh for a licence under a new regime, avoiding the risk of not being granted permission to continue.

McDowell last week was adamant that the move to drop plans to outlaw casinos was not a U-turn but one he reached after discussions with his colleagues. It is understood, however, that the minister decided to seek an alternative when it became clear he was unlikely to get his plans through cabinet.

Hall said his members had carried out extensive lobbying and had met ministers and their representatives.

McDowell met with the taoiseach ahead of last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting and it was decided that he would discuss compromises moves with cabinet rather than seek to force through his original plans for a ban. The taoiseach has hinted that next year’s general election could be held later than the widely anticipated date of May 2007, and has conceded that Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats may need the support of independents to get back into office.

Bertie Ahern said he does not have to hold next year’s poll until July 8, a pointed contribution given that most speculation now centres around mid-May.

Delaying the election as long as possible would allow the government an opportunity to improve its opinion poll ratings. It could also gain maximum benefit from maturing special savings incentive accounts. Most of the EUR 16 billion generated by the scheme will mature in the first part of next year, half of it in May.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, the taoiseach said he would not make up his mind on the election date until “next summer”, but joked that with the hot weather this summer, July might be a better month.

Ahern admits his party will be “battling for the last seat in every constituency” if it fights the election with its current level of support. The latest MRBI poll put support for Fianna Fail down from 37% to 31%.

But the Fianna Fail leader predicted that voters would begin to ask tougher questions of the opposition nearer the date of the election and he again challenged the leaders of Fine Gael and Labour to publish the detailed policy platform they promised six months ago.

The taoiseach pledged not to engage in auction politics or to allow public spending to run out of control over the next year. He acknowledged that making progress on the crisis in the country’s accident and emergency (A&E) units would be crucial to the government’s fortunes next year.

Ahern said he feared the government would not be able to secure agreement on the necessary 24-hour cover by consultants and other frontline staff in high-tech hospital departments between now and the election.

“We have engaged with the staff. The one side I worry about, because I don’t think it is possible for us to do it in a year, . . . is getting the hospital services to do as they do in private hospitals, where they are open far longer hours,” he said.

“We are going to keep working on that. We may not get it into the position that I’d like to have it in by election time, but we are certainly going to keep up that programme.”

He said Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, the Fine Gael and Labour leaders, were “nice guys, personally”, but had spent a lifetime hurling on the ditch. “They have never once put the ball into the back of the net for their country. They have never had to. They have never really been in positions of authority other than for a short period when they got in on an unelected basis (1994-97).”

The taoiseach said he was worried that “people who are untried, untested and who have no track record” might not be able to manage the economy, the peace process or EU affairs.

He said Fianna Fail was averaging 34% or 35% in a poll of polls, including MRBI and Red C. Asked if the figures made another Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition unlikely, Ahern said: “We’ll have to see as we go into the next election. In 1997 it was Fianna Fail, PDs, independents. If you were looking at it now on the figures, you would say that would be more likely than Fianna Fail and the PDs on their own.”

The taoiseach said the opposition parties had concentrated on “the negatives of the day” over the past several months without offering detailed policies of their own. Fianna Fail’s private research, he admitted, had found that negative opposition campaigning had been damaging to the government.

“There is an atmosphere of uncritical acceptance of complaint and attack by the opposition,” he said. “Whatever three or four things are causing annoyance are pumped up and feed into the cynicism. This ignores the fact that the country is doing better than practically any country in the world.”

“If we keep our cool, keep doing our work, produce the national development plan, Transport 21, get the social partnership agreement ratified … the electorate will begin to ask serious questions about the opposition.”