Moves to clear the way for the first casino to be built in Northern Ireland are expected to advance next year.
Representatives of one Europe’s biggest gaming companies and Belfast City councillors have already had exploratory discussions over a multimillion-pound complex which would also include restaurants and a hotel.
Up to 200 jobs could be created, it has been claimed.
Northern Ireland’s gambling laws do not have provision for the opening of a purpose-built casino, but the UK-based Rank Group, which manages 55 casinos across Britain, has confirmed possible plans for one in Belfast.
Dan Waugh, Rank Group’s strategy director, met Sinn Fein, Alliance and SDLP councillors earlier this month. He is due to have private talks with Ulster Unionist and DUP representatives at City Hall early next year when a model of the complex will be displayed as part of a presentation.
He said discussions had proved positive, but admitted he appreciated the sensitivities surrounding attempts to set up in a city where there are no roulette wheels or blackjack tables.
He said: “We want to determine whether or not there is an appetite for a change in the Northern Ireland legislation which would eventually allow for a strictly regulated and monitored gaming operation to anchor a broader entertainment centre with cinema, restaurants, bars and possibly a hotel, the likes of which are prevalent in most major cities in Europe.”
In terms of gambling legislation, the city council provides licences only for amusement arcades. It would be up to Nelson McCausland’s Department of Social Development to change the laws, but if legislation is allowed for the development of an entertainment centre including a casino, Mr Waugh says he envisages an operation which would create up to 200 full-time equivalent skilled posts.
“We are designing a prototype model specifically for Belfast and this would include all the components mentioned, create up to 200 skilled jobs and generate significant economic benefits through taxes and business rates.
“We would specifically recruit our personnel from areas of social need in Belfast where long-term unemployed and young people not in employment, education or training are in the highest numbers. Training in gaming trades and professions provides a passport to travel the world and work in just about any corner of the world.
“We enjoy a strong reputation as a caring operator and work hard to develop relationships with the communities we serve.”
Britain has the second highest number of casinos in Europe with 143, behind France with 195.
There are plans to modernise the Republic’s 50-year-old gaming laws. The Gambling Control Bill 2013 published in July has ruled out Las Vegas-style supercasinos. It will restrict the number of casinos to 40 with a maximum of 15 tables each.
But plans for one in Northern Ireland, where there is already some opposition to demands for licensed poker clubs, are expected to be resisted as well.
Retired Free Presbyterian minister David McIlveen said he would be horrified if a casino opened.
He said: “I don’t believe gambling is authorised or sanctioned as far as the Bible is concerned.
“Gambling has been glamorised by television and we see young people watching football being bombarded with advertising by bookmakers. It’s all very sad.
“It has almost an addictive influence and is creating a generation of young people who have lost the value of what life is all about. It’s almost like bringing people into the slave trade because of the addiction which gambling creates.”