Gaming in Ireland has been operating in a grey area since the early 2000s when British-style membership clubs began to be established. A new set of gaming regulations has been set up recently along with a new regulatory scheme. JJ Woods has been consulting on gaming projects around the world for more than 30 years and is the unqualified expert on gaming in Ireland. While he is optimistic that the new regulations will help grow the Irish gaming industry, he says specifics are few and far between because lots of issues need to be decided. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros from his office in Dublin in January. (Listen to podcast abv., or view the video at the bottom).
GGB: Why don’t you give us a little thumbnail of what gambling in Ireland looked like before the recent regulatory reforms were considered?
JJ Woods: Somewhere around the late ’90s or 2000, the law was circumvented when private members’ clubs started to open all over the country. This was the first time that live gaming was offered, largely blackjack and roulette. Prior to that was a large amount of slot machine arcades. And there’s a bit of a confusion there, because some of them were amusement arcades, which meant in the beginning they had to be almost like children’s games. But as things progressed, they amounted to having actual gaming. This dates back to the 1950s.
This was probably one of the biggest mistakes that hopefully the Irish government will now correct. Because for the last 60 years, we actually broke the first rule of any gaming legislation, which is to protect the young and the vulnerable.
Were these private member clubs similar to the to the private clubs in the U.K.?
Very much so. Some of them are awful. Some of them were actually quite beautiful. The ones I consulted on, they’re very much like gentlemen’s clubs with very good service, beautiful plush carpets, brass fixtures, lighting right over the pictures, that type of oak room style.
And how about the High Street bookmakers?
If we go back to the early 2000s, PaddyPower, which is now Flutter, basically became a monopoly. So they were allowed to proliferate. And it’s very important to remember as well, even though online sports betting dominates today, every single one of those companies in that space had a retail presence on the street.
What spurred the recent regulatory reforms?
Research into regulation started when they actually printed a research paper in July 2013. The truth of the matter is my first submission goes way back to Bertie O’Hearn, when he was the prime minister of this country. He requested that I do a submission on gambling to the government back in 2007.
But I can’t think of any one event that happened where they said, let’s get this done, except to say gambling grew exponentially during Covid, especially online gaming. So I think that’s probably one of the pushes that said we need to do something.
So what is possible under these new laws in terms of gambling expansion? Can they build an IR or a series of casinos?
The answer is, I’m really not sure. I’d love to be able to tell you but things are still up in the air. There are several issues that have to be worked out. There’s a strong belief still that the permission for a gaming club or casino should lie with local council. We have local councils all over the country. I’m against that myself for many, many reasons. That’s just one area that needs to be looked at.
They also need to know things like, will alcohol be allowed to be served in the casino? That has to be defined. Can you drink and gamble? That’s always been a law in this country. You could never drink and gamble. That’s a law that needs to be changed.
So when you ask me that question, where is the development; where’s the future, where are the improvements coming from? We’re going to need to know a lot more. We need to find out an awful lot more about how the government’s thinking about this.