Minister signals new gambling laws will allow casinos

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has signalled his intention to liberalise the State’s gambling laws by legalising casinos and creating a new regulatory authority for all forms of gaming.

In his first comments on the issue since becoming Minister, Mr Ahern told The Irish Times that existing laws on gambling were „past their sell-by date“.

However, he promised no changes would be made until cross-party agreement was reached and the public was consulted on the issue. Most parties had agreed to the proposal to set up a cross-party committee on gambling but talks were continuing, he said.

Although casinos are illegal under the 1956 Gaming and Lotteries Act, up to 50 private members‘ clubs offering roulette, blackjack and other casino-type games have sprung up around the country. Asked if he intended to close these clubs down, as a predecessor, Michael McDowell, proposed, the Minister replied: „We are past the day when we can outlaw them. What we need to do is regulate them in a way that is fair.“

Mr Ahern promised to publish the report of the inter-departmental Casino Regulatory Committee established by Mr McDowell soon. The Irish Times understands it recommends legalising medium-size casinos subject to strict regulatory controls. Casino licences should be awarded according to criteria set by a regulatory body and should not be auctioned off in a bidding or „beauty“ contest. The age limit for gaming should be set at 18, and possibly at 21 for casinos. Government policies across different departments should be reviewed for consistency and more research should be carried out into the effects of problem gambling.

The report is strongly against allowing fixed odds betting terminals – described by Labour justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte as „the crack cocaine of gambling“ – in bookmakers‘ premises or pubs but is equivocal about allowing them in licensed gaming premises. In a letter to Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, Mr Ahern says he has „no intention or interest of using the cloak“ of a cross-party committee to force changes.