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Donegal courts fail to deal with illegal slot machines

Donegal courts again fail to deal with illegal slot machines in Bundoran, implying the Garda and Revenue are responsible

Justice is not a motif found emblazoned around Donegal. Its flouting accounts for much in my home town of Bundoran and elsewhere in the county.

In particular the power the late Sean McEniff had over local governance is very unsettling – through politics and wealth. He was Fianna Fáil’s longest-serving councillor and perhaps its richest man. His hotel empire extended to ten hotels countrywide including the Skylon in Dublin and the Great Southern in Bundoran. 

Journalist Gemma O’Doherty and others have alleged that McEniff interfered with the Garda investigation into the death in 1977 of six-year-old Mary Boyle, but it is the power his empire wields over the slot machines that have for fifty years dominated and blighted once-elegant Bundoran that particularly concerns me here.

McEniff’s empire traces its foundation to slot machines. McEniff was by far the largest slot machine operator in the town, and ignored the law: his slots would make big pay-outs, just enough to keep the key punters, most of them poor or old – or both, hooked.

In 2009 Bundoran Town Council adopted a submission from the slot-machine operators – McEniff being the largest – to the Department of Justice – as its own submission. The submission had been adopted by the Council on the same day at a special meeting which had only three Councillors present. The quorum for any meeting was four Councillors to be present, though nobody called halt.

The submission said Bundoran’s 1,000 machines were “an integral part of the overall Bundoran product, both on and off the season, and a key reason why visitors continue to be attracted to the town”.

Growing up in Bundoran, I remember from a young age the dangers of gaming machines. A friend of my mother came down from the North on the bus with her wages on a Friday and rushed up to play gaming machines in the town. By Sunday evening she had to ask my mum for money to get back home, after losing everything.
The 2008 Department of Justice report on ‘Regulating Gaming in Ireland’ states “The Committee is aware of the type of gaming machine which accepts €500 notes. The Act of 1956 provides a maximum stake in gaming machines of 6d and a maximum prize of 10 shillings. The Act is not being enforced and that brings the law into disrepute”.

The Garda Síochána, the Revenue and the Council have long since abjured responsibility for enforcing the gaming laws.

A 1985 ‘Today Tonight’ programme on RTÉ focused on Law and Order in South Donegal, particularly Seán McEniff’s gaming. Donegal County Council sued RTÉ for defamation for what it said about the inappropriate relationship between Donegal [County] Council and the Garda but a legal settlement saw it agree to remove the programme, on the steps of the High Court.

One of the last convictions for illegal gaming in Bundoran was in 2000 after Charlie Bird did the exposé on illegal gaming here. The solicitor for McEniffs Bundoran Limited said to the Judge at the time that “Charlie Bird should be prosecuted” as he had played an illegal gaming machine.

Poor Sean died last year but his empire remains in the family. I recently objected in the District Court to renewal of the gaming licence to McEniffs Bundoran Limited. The first Judge and McEniffs’ solicitor removed themselves from the case, the solicitor coming off record after I raised a concern of conflict of interest.

I objected as a member of the Public, though I have had my travails with Sean McEniff when I was Bundoran’s traffic warden.

When I objected that gaming machines accept notes while the 1956 Act maximum is 20 cent, the solicitor for the McEniffs Gerry McGovern did not deny it. Instead he just noted that Revenue issued Certificates and that gardaí and fire officers had no objections. “If there was a difficulty, the gardaí and revenue wouldn’t be long moving in”, he said. But that is the core of the problem. As to my objection that there were too many machines in Bundoran, Judge Denis McLoughlin said that would only be valid in case of a new application.

McGovern said it was an application that had been renewed umpteen times and hadn’t been changed. And in Donegal it seems that is the main thing.

The Revenue’s webpage states that it up to the District Court to “limit the amount of the stakes and prizes and limiting the number of gaming machines”. But Judge McLoughlin was not interested.

I have been before the District, Circuit and High Courts on occasion, always representing myself. In 2012 in Donegal Circuit Court, Judge Keenan Johnston highlighted that as a lay litigant “She`d be entering the Court with one hand tied behind her back”. The dysfunctionality of Donegal from policing to planning to electoral fraud to unemployment to paedophila is now well documented. Sometimes you feel fighting for justice here leaves you very much alone. 

By Patricia McCafferty