Shining a light on the darkness

Shining a light on the darkness
The Church is at the forefront of tackling gambling addiction, but more work is needed, writes Colm Fitzpatrick


It’s a rare situation in the Northern Irish political landscape where all major parties unanimously agree to tackle a social issue, but it seems that problem gambling falls suitably into this exceptional category. Often relegated to a petty issue compared to alcohol or drug addiction, it’s now clear that problem gambling is just as destructive as these other compulsions especially given how many people suffer from it.

Recent research has found that around 40,000 people are addicted to gambling in the Republic with an even higher number for those living in the North. These statistics excludes individuals who gamble from time to time or those who are moderate risk gamblers.

It’s safe to say that problem  gambling has taking the country by thunderous storm but unlike most storms people haven’t been discussing it or the damage it may cause.

Political parties in the North of Ireland are, however, calling for gambling legislation to be reformed. Most recently, Belfast City Council held a debate on the issue, highlighting the shocking lack of existing support for addicts. Councillor John Kyle proposed the motion and it follows countless previous warnings concerning the dearth of help available to sufferers.


Describing how destructive this type of addiction can become, Fr Martin Magill of St John’s on Belfast’s Falls Road, says that it’s “really important” to discuss problem gambling out loud with others. Having written and spoken about addiction, he suggests that gambling is a “hidden problem” and with the introduction of online gambling, has become much more secretive.

“Just over the years, I’ve certainly come across families where the damage has gotten so serious…Relationships have broken down, both husband and wife, between partners, between parents and children – there’s a huge effect on families when the whole addictive side of things takes over completely and people don’t go for help.”

Having seen first-hand how all-consuming this addiction is, Fr Martin suggests it’s important to admit the problem and then seek help. It’s “much better to shine a light on these dark areas”, he says, rather than remain keeping the light turned off.

While there are a few different support mechanisms for problem gamblers in Ireland, it would be a gross oversight not to mention how critical the Church and Christian institutions have been in this area. Support outlets such as Gamblers Anonymous (GA) are dependent on Church halls and the power of fellowship in bringing together gamblers who want to quit the habit.

“Gamblers Anonymous, people need to know that they’re out there, that help is available, it’s absolutely vital and life changing, people are doing great things in the fellowships which are often held in Church halls,” says Seán Harty, Chairperson of Addiction Counsellors of Ireland. “They stand such a better chance doing fellowship with other people who are all in the one room for the one reason.”

Mr Harty adds that even today, the majority of treatment centres are still run by religious orders, noting that the work they do is “absolutely fantastic”. Hundreds of people attend meetings yearly to curb gambling addiction but most of this wouldn’t be made possible without the churches that facilitate them.

“So, the Church is very much connected. Any Church I walk into, I notice on their notice boards the fellowship meetings, AA, GA, overeaters anonymous, it’s all there,” Seán says.

“The Church is of huge support in itself, which is not always acknowledged. People are very quick to badmouth the Church, but they’re still involved hugely in doing fantastic work in the field of addiction or the misuse of alcohol and drugs.”


It wouldn’t be terribly hyperbolic to describe churches and religious orders as unsung heroes when speaking of gambling prevention measures and support, but it’s important to remember this is an issue that is far from resolved.

While it may seem that only adults encounter problem gambling, Stephen Hughes, Senior Youth Worker in St Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre in Belfast, knows otherwise.

Having worked with young people in some of the most disadvantaged areas for decades, he tells The Irish Catholic that with easier access to gambling outlets, young people are also becoming addicted.

“It’s the only thing we seem to be getting cross-party support on. It seems that Sinn Féin, DUP, SDLP and UUP are all in favour of limiting gambling opportunities and gambling promotion in the North.

“It’s been huge – it has even shocked us,” he says.

Stephen adds that young people can’t benefit from treatment organisations like Addiction NI and GA as they only cater to adults, stressing that there are no provisions for the hundreds of young people who are struggling with gambling addiction in the North at the moment. The consequences of this, he explains, can even escalate to suicide, which is something he has seen young people attempt in his own community youth group in the past year.


Another disconcerting topic that Stephen raises is how ingrained gambling has become in society, rendering young people unaware of their addictive habits.

When the Young Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) from the UK recently visited the senior members of St Peter’s Immaculata to speak about gambling, Stephen says that young people didn’t even consider football bets, doing the lottery or purchasing scratch cards as gambling. Gambling has become so enculturated into the minds of young people that they “don’t know what gambling is”, he stresses.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, Stephen explains that in the next few months hundreds of youth workers will begin training in this area and that a review of gambling legislation is waiting to be discussed once the NI Assembly is restored.

These incremental but significant steps offer hope to a country that is drowning in addiction – one where there are never any winners.