Northern Ireland

Philip McGuigan: MLA's gambling addiction almost ruined his life

Philip McGuigan Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Philip McGuigan says he had to download software on his phone to stop him from gambling

Sinn Féin's Philip McGuigan has been battling a gambling addiction that cost him more than £100,000.

"I am a recovering compulsive gambler," he told BBC NI's The View.

Speaking for the first time about his addiction, the North Antrim MLA wants Northern Ireland's gambling laws changed to protect others from falling into the same trap.

A consultation on changing the legislation is due to end later this month.

"In a period in my life, I lost huge sums of money, but more than that, it changed me as a person and had a huge impact on my family life," he said.

Mr McGuigan was not a typical gambler - he never visited a bookmakers and had no real interest in gambling on sport.

However, he was addicted to online poker. And over the course of eight years, he lost more than £100,000.

"There were times, lots of times, when we had no money to buy food to eat, where my children had to go without necessities, where the mortgage wasn't paid and I wasn't able to fuel the car.

"I ruined many a Christmas and birthday because of my gambling," he said.

Image copyright Rawf8/Getty Images

He funded his addiction by remortgaging his house, taking out bank loans and running up huge credit card bills.

Mr McGuigan is now resigned to the fact that he will be repaying the money he owes for the rest of his life.

'Life wasn't worth living'

"There's no closing time to online gambling - its 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.

"For someone like me, who is a compulsive gambler, the sad reality is the only time I stopped playing is when I lost money.

"I was able to gamble on a laptop, iPad, on my phone - I always had access. There were periods where I went 48 hours and did nothing but gamble non-stop. You would keep going until you run out of money.

"In every other aspect of my life, I would say I'm strong willed, know the difference between right and wrong and see myself as a good person, but I had no power over gambling - once it started, it took control of me.

"I had given up on life [but] thankfully my family and friends hadn't given up on me."

Image copyright Danske Bank
Image caption Mr McGuigan said he no longer carries cash

Then came the moment which changed his life - he was admitted to the White Oak Addiction Treatment Centre in Donegal, where he learned how to deal with his gambling.

"I take this illness very, very seriously. My recovery is a day at a time. I will be a recovering compulsive gambler until the day I die."

He explained that he takes very practical steps to manage his addiction.

"I don't carry money, I don't have a cash card that can be used online, I had to download software to my phone which stops me from gambling."

Legislation out of date

The most recent survey estimates that there are 40,000 problem gamblers in Northern Ireland - that's the highest rate in the UK per head of the population.

It is widely accepted the current gambling legislation, which dates back to 1985, is out of date and has not kept pace with massive online changes in the industry.

Image caption Philip McGuigan would like to see a gambling regulator appointed to oversee the industry

If some in the industry get their way, Sunday opening, which happens in the Republic of Ireland, could be one of the big changes coming.

Another change - if Philip McGuigan gets his way - will see an independent gambling regulator appointed to oversee the industry, ensuring there is help for problem gamblers.

Philip McGuigan's interview will be broadcast in full on BBC Northern Ireland's The View programme at 22:35 GMT on Thursday, 06 February.

More on this story