Ireland is gambling away a golden job creation opportunity

13 Aug 2009

Dev must be turning in his grave. A former church on Fitzwilliam Street, where one of the most dominant political figures of 20th-century Ireland used to go and pray every day before attending the Dáil, is now a casino.

While many of us are praying right now for the future of this country, these prayers might be answered if Ireland decided to go for a slice of a €44bn-a-year online casino industry.

The Fitzwilliam Card Club, which is run by David Hickson, director of the Gaming and Leisure Association, is a little slice of Las Vegas in Dublin with roulette and blackjack tables.

As I saunter over to a table, I notice something odd. The croupier is playing to an empty table, yet she’s talking via videoconference link to a number of players who could be anywhere in the world. This, Hickson says, is just an example of the kind of opportunity that Ireland can thrive on if it adheres to the highest standards.

According to a report by DKM Consultants, if Ireland were to put the right legal regulatory infrastructure in place it could play host to a large number of online casino companies that would generate employment and tax revenue for the Exchequer.

The report suggests that if Ireland were to capture just 5pc of the global online casino business it would represent a local sector worth €2.2bn that would generate 5,000 jobs, at an average salary of €40,000 per annum.

But so far Ireland has failed to act and amend a dated 1956 Gaming and Lotteries Act, which would open the doors to a thriving industry.

An example of the potential of this sector is Irish firm Paddy Power, which has a successful Ireland and UK online business but has had to locate these operations on the Isle of Man. An online casino software company Cryptologic in Dublin employs 400 people, again another illustration of what could be possible.

A report by the casino committee for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has described the 1956 Act as a “relic of social history utterly unsuited to effectively regulate gaming in a modern wealthy European state” and called for a modern and effective system of regulation.

Such a system of regulation would open the doors to a “remote gaming industry” that it describes as a multibillion-euro financial-services industry similar to the financial and technology industries Ireland has already attracted.

Hickson says that Ireland has already lost out on major job-creation opportunities by businesses that were tempted to locate here. “They shied away because, at the end of the day, they weren’t given the reassurances in terms of regulation that they would like to have.

“Ireland has a huge opportunity to establish itself as a major hub of the online gaming sector. There is a very tight timeline for Ireland to get this right. The UK has already moved to put a regulatory structure in place to capture this vibrant industry, but it got its taxation structure for the industry wrong. France and Spain are working on the legislation, so Ireland needs to hurry up.

“The Government is taking a one-step-at-a-time approach. The focus now should be on job creation from an industry that is as relevant to the future as IT, finance or pharmaceuticals. We have a thriving data-centre industry here in Dublin that would be ripe to support this industry.

“If they fear a backlash over the morals of gambling they need not. This is a very highly regulated, sophisticated industry. Because of the internet, player protection can be facilitated more robustly online. Everything is recorded and every game is tracked. We don’t accept non-cash bets, for example, and the spending limit is €250.”

Hickson explains that the Gaming and Leisure Association has been lobbying for the past three years to see new legislation and a regulatory framework put in place.

“But if people are worried about problem gambling, regulation is the correct way to proceed. However, until you have a framework, there is nothing to say that Ireland is a reputable place for locating a large job-creating investment here.”

Geoff Collins of ViewTec, which makes the software that drives the videoconferencing technology used within the Fitzwilliam Card Club, says that the window of opportunity for Ireland is shrinking, with the US and China revving up to tackle this €44bn-a-year global industry.

“The gaming industry is looking for a regulated open economy in which to invest. The biggest gamble Ireland can make is to continue to make slow progress on it. The industry is going to march on and the question is: does Ireland want to have a part of it?”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years