Not everyone is a winner with the Lotto.
A few years ago I had the privilege of appearing on the BBC television series, Who Do You Think You Are? Let me add very quickly that it was very much a bit part. All I had to do was welcome Chris Moyles, the English DJ and celebrity, to Ballina Cathedral and say a few meaningless words, pointing out his ancestors’ names in the baptismal register.
I bring this up not to underline my significant contribution to the history of the British Broadcasting Corporation but to share Moyles’ reaction to his return visit to Ballina after many years. I asked him what struck him about Ballina since his last visit and he immediately said it was the proliferation of betting shops. Does anyone get time to work here, he asked, and keep all the bookies busy at the same time?
It’s a good question. How come we need so many of them now? Or more pertinently, what generated the growing appetite for gambling in Ireland?
There’s no one reason but I suspect that the introduction of the National Lottery in the late 1980s had something to do with it. Before that betting shops seemed decrepit places, full of cigarette smoke and sad people. Now they’re like superior hotel foyers, with richly carpeted floors, huge colour televisions and with free coffee on tap. The gambling bug is now respectable. Thanks, I suspect, in the main to the National Lottery.
However, that might change. Has the Lottery reached its peak and is now on a downward spiral? The word is that significantly fewer people are buying lottery tickets in Ireland. The latest figures indicate a substantial decline last year in the popularity of the Lotto. Officials explain this by suggesting that a confluence of unexpected situations – prizes won before a large prize had accumulated, the success of Euro Millions, etc – has conspired to decrease interest in the Lotto. However, the good news is that this is regarded as a temporary set-back and the expectation is that players – isn’t ‘playing’ a bit of a misnomer here – will soon recover their interest.
The original slogan of the National Lottery was ‘Everyone is a winner’. This referred to the received wisdom at the time that the Lotto would allow people to dream, that it was a fun exercise every weekend, that sporting organisations, community groups etc would benefit from its success and, not least of course, that as Ireland eased itself out of the last recession in the 1980s it would allow politicians to dispense unexpected largesse – and garner the expected votes.
At a number of levels the lottery has been a great success. It has enhanced the efforts of many social, community and sporting voluntary groups, who have put to good use an unexpected wind-fall; it’s added a lot of colour to Irish life; it allows people to dream; it’s created hundreds of millionaires; and it’s allowed politicians in power a wonderful opportunity of looking after their own.
But the questions remain: where is all this money coming from? And what segment of Irish society is contributing the most?
There are, to my knowledge, few statistics available that would allow us to pinpoint where most of the money comes from. As far as I know the lottery has not examined this in great detail. Obviously large numbers of people from the different strata of society buy an occasional ticket here and there. A lot of people buy a few. And a few people buy a lot. And I fear those who buy a lot may do so out of an income that simply can’t afford that level of weekly investment.
I suspect that many on employment assistance or sick benefit or the like, in a desperate effort to supplement their meagre income, fail to resist the temptation offered by the inviting adverts on television. The Lotto millionaire drinking champagne on a sunny beach, the old lady going to the butcher in her Lear jet, the bouncy music, the party atmosphere, the €50 Euro notes falling like manna from heaven, Daniel O’Donnell serenading an elderly lady in his front room – all contrive to separate the poor from their pittances.
I suspect that it’s those in most need in our society who contribute most to the lottery’s ‘success’. It’s a salutary thought that the generous allotments coming on stream from the coffers of the lottery are probably, in the main made up by the cents of the poor. And this begs the question as to who’s actually paying for the extension to the golf club or the building of a football stadium?
Another consideration is that the Lottery has effectively institutionalised a gambling culture in Ireland. By organising a successful national enterprise, by making it a huge success, by dispensing its profits to admirable causes, it has achieved in a few decades something which many thought impossible – it has made gambling respectable.
Leaving aside the hard fringe of addicted gamblers that ‘Gamblers Anonymous’ tries to deal with, it has introduced many – old and young, rich and poor – to gambling who have never entered a betting shop in their lives.
There are no government warnings about the possible consequences of a national gambling splurge, no stickers on the tickets to say that playing this game can damage individuals and families, no apparent reservations about what this is doing to a whole generation of people.
There’s no discussion of the debilitating personal, family and social consequences of gambling addiction. Nothing about the anti-social and depersonalising consequences of playing ‘a game’ totally bereft of skill, initiative or intelligence. There’s no discussion about what drives the pernicious philosophy behind the lottery culture – get rich quickly, get rich easily – or what effect it may be having. And there’s no apparent reservations about the Saturday night Lottery programme on television that surely sponsors a culture of greed.
No one, it seems, wants to point out that you have a better chance of being run over by a bus than of winning the Lotto. No one wants to point out the toll the Lottery success may have taken on individuals and on society. Everyone it seems wants to ignore the pensioner, scraping a bundle of lotto cards outside a shop on pension day and then throwing them away in disgust. Or the teenager seduced by the sophisticated adverts.
Not everyone is a winner with the Lotto.