Is Belfast Missing Out By Not Having A “Real” Casino?

Writers on this website have been keen to point out that modern Belfast is a great place to do business. And, rightly so. If you have watched how the Northern Ireland region has changed since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, you can only shake your head and wonder. Sure, there has been a global recession, the shadow of Brexit, long periods without a functioning government, as well as the various curveballs of 2020, but the city has come through feeling stronger and (reasonably) optimistic about its future.

And yet, as the cranes build and the planners plan regeneration projects, and plans for new hotels to join venues like the Grand Central, it’s interesting to note that Belfast, unlike nearly every other major UK city, lacks a casino. But before we have a look at why it hasn’t got one, we want to look briefly at why it should.

Rank Group’s proposals were ambitious

The first thing to note is that a casino, of the scope we are talking about here, should not be viewed as some sort of gambling hub. Instead, we are talking about an entertainment complex, with additional attractions that go beyond gaming tables and slot machines. Possible side attractions in such a complex could include a cinema, bowling alley, theatre, restaurants and bars. We haven’t plucked those ideas out of thin air, though, as they were suggested as part of Rank Group’s proposed Belfast casino plans that were submitted in the 2010s.

That proposal by Rank Group was set to see around £200 million worth of investment in such a complex, with some estimates claiming that almost 1,000 jobs would have been created as a result. There are various sites around the city that could house such a complex, most notably the Titanic Quarter. Unfortunately, Rank came up against a Stormont at its most inert and dysfunctional, and plans have been shelved for the foreseeable future.

The major stumbling block is simple, casinos – in their entirety – aren’t licensed to operate in Northern Ireland. It makes little sense, however. Consider the gambling activity anyone in Northern Ireland can do: Northern Ireland has 300 bookmakers shops; Belfast and every other major town has gaming arcades, which have all manner of slot, roulette and poker machines; you can use your smartphone to access new online slots from the trusted platform with a UKGC licence within seconds; on the outskirts of the city, there are horse racing tracks (Down Royal) and a dog track (Drumbo).

In short, gambling activity is accessible everywhere, so why not put some of it under one roof? Is there a difference in placing a bet on roulette at a table, with a croupier earning a wage, compared with placing it through a terminal at a bookmakers’ shop?

An extra facet to Belfast’s entertainment offering

Without trying to point fingers, there has been a reluctance to put the cherry on top of the city’s world-class hospitality network. This ranges from the disappointing efforts to secure longer opening hours for bars and clubs during the Easter Holidays to a lack of support for the city’s night-time venues. When the cruise ships start rolling in again, and the stag and hen parties come through City Airport and Aldergrove, it would be great to see Belfast being able to provide more entertainment late into the night.

Belfast There can, of course, valid objections to having a casino complex in a city. The outcome of studies vary dramatically, and they often report on issues linked with problem gambling rather than casinos in and of themselves. Again, though, we should point to the fact that every type of gambling is available in Northern Ireland around the clock, regardless, so why object to a casino complex?

A casino would be emblematic of the city’s rise to being one of the most on-trend destinations in Europe. It would add another facet to a city that already draws 1.5 million tourists a year. Yes, we must wade through the exceptional circumstances of 2020, but it certainly something that should be back on the cards at Stormont.

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