THE ANNOUNCEMENT in October that Ireland would again enter lockdown was another huge hammer blow to all the businesses that had only begun to adjust to the new normal.
One of the sectors that’s been particularly badly affected by the unprecedented measures is gambling. The nation’s betting shops and casinos were put through the wringer when they were forced to shut their doors for the first lockdown back in March. With their doors again forced to close, there’s no telling how many may never open them again.
It speaks volumes that even BoyleSports, one of the biggest betting behemoths, has voiced alarm over the latest restrictions. Giants like BoyleSports and Ladbrokes own the vast majority of the estimated 800 betting shops in Ireland, and – despite being in a more secure position than so many smaller businesses – they clearly aren’t relishing having to batten down the hatches all over again. A spokesperson for BoyleSports dubbed the new lockdown “devastating”, especially given the fact that “BoyleSports has invested over €1 million in making shops a safe environment for our customers”.
The company’s efforts have included the installation of plastic screens and hand sanitising stations, not to mention strict limits on how many customers are allowed into their betting shops at any one time. These kinds of expensive and time-consuming measures are all part of the post-Covid reality for the whole betting industry, but will of course do nothing to stave off potential permanent closures and job losses if restrictions continue.
The storm will be even harder to weather for the independent betting shops which don’t have the resources and financial safety nets of their bigger rivals. As Sharon Byrne of the Irish Bookmakers Association warned when the new lockdown was announced, “It’s hard to see how any of the small businesses can survive”. She also pointed out that, while the big brands can at least rely on revenue streams from online sports bettors, “for those who are fully focussed on retail in Ireland it is a big blow”.
This last point highlights the important role online gambling has played in keeping the industry afloat in the age of the coronavirus. After all, no matter how stringent and unpredictable the social restrictions get, punters have been free to place bets from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Even back when all the major sporting events had been put on pause, customers could still wager on obscure, niche sports across the globe, as well as esports tournaments.
Given the pandemic-fuelled surge in Internet betting in 2020, it’s rather lucky the online gambling landscape in Ireland was whipped into shape relatively recently, in 2015. It was then that a major amendment was made to the antiquated Betting Act of 1931, finally bringing Ireland’s sports betting legislation into the Internet age. Thanks to that milestone moment, all online betting operators targeting Irish customers – including the likes of Bet365, William Hill and Paddy Power – have had to purchase licenses and pay taxes. As well as bringing in millions of euros for the exchequer, the amendment properly legitimised online betting in Ireland for the first time. As a result of this long-overdue overhaul, punters flocking to bet online right now can feel safe in the knowledge that they’re not getting involved in anything illicit (as long as they stick to licensed and regulated bookies).
But where do casinos stand in these perilous times? Well, there’s been no equivalent overhaul of legislation relating to casinos, whether land-based or online. The fact is, casinos have always been on shaky ground, with bricks-and-mortar establishments being technically illegal in Ireland.
This may come as news to anyone who’s played roulette or blackjack at the Sporting Emporium in Dublin, or at the Macau Sporting Club in Cork. But the reason these “casinos” are allowed to exist is that they’re actually categorised as private members’ clubs. Thanks to this legal loophole, they can carry on trading as long as customers sign up as members. But the ambiguous situation has become increasingly controversial of late. In December 2019, just before the earthquake of Covid, the well-known Fitzwilliam Casino & Card Club in Dublin closed down. Its stakeholders blamed a new amendment in the law which they believe increases the chances of legal prosecution.
“It’s well for the Minister to tell us it’s not his intention to close down Private Members’ Clubs,” said one stakeholder, “but it won’t be the Minister, it’ll be the Guards acting on foot from complaints from somebody who rocks in and says they were able to gamble a thousand euros at a club which doesn’t have a permit.”
Others in the industry have dismissed this as doom-mongering, saying there’s no new risk to private members’ clubs. In either case, the dire predicament brought about by the pandemic only serves to highlight a distinct lack of legal clarity regarding casino gaming. This may be resolved in 2021, with the launch of Ireland’s new gambling regulator which promises to be “focused on public safety and wellbeing, covering gambling online and in person, and the powers to regulate advertising, gambling websites and apps.”
This could herald a brave new era for casinos in Ireland, while the possible end of the pandemic thanks to the much-vaunted new vaccine is another reason to feel optimistic. In the meantime, though, the gambling industry will have to struggle through dark times, buoyed by the popularity of web-based bookies and the reputable online casinos featured on sites like TopRatedCasinos.