Sinn Fein’s Philip McGuigan on his gambling addiction: ‘I played for three days and nights without a break. I won £40,000 and lost it all within an hour’

Sinn Fein’s Philip McGuigan, 48, lost £100,000 during an eight-year online gambling addiction, while Declan Cregan, 30, left himself without food and sunk every penny he earned into slot machines.

oth men are now in convalescence and work to warn of the dangers and prevent others from following the same path.

They speak boldly about the impact gambling has had on them while supporting Safer Gambling Week, which started yesterday and runs through Friday.

North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan is campaigning for tougher legal restrictions as part of an NI Assembly All Party Group (APG) to reduce gambling-related harms established in 2020.

The father of four and grandfather from Dunloy, who is married to Paula, a class assistant, knows from bitter experience the devastation of addiction.

Not only is he a recovering gambling addict, but he is also a recovering alcoholic.

Addicted to gambling for eight years, he eventually entered rehab, in a move he said “saved my life.”

Now Philip is eager to help regulate an industry he believes is preying on addicts like himself.

His addiction began around 2005 when he started playing no stakes poker with friends as a pastime and raising funds for charity.

Said he had a talent for the card game, within a year he was playing online and very quickly found he couldn’t stop.

He says: “Before that I rarely bet on anything and have only been to a betting shop about half a dozen times in my life.

“I started playing for fun, but as soon as I got online my addiction increased very quickly.

“I’ve always been wary of money and although I had a credit card, I rarely used it and when I did it was only for small amounts, which I repaid immediately.

“When I first started playing online poker I was quite successful initially and won a bit of money, but as with all these things, once you lose you start chasing your losses and very quickly I reached the £1,500 mark for my credit card.”

Easy access to online gambling via his phone meant he was soon gambling day and night, and admits that at the peak of his addiction he had been gambling for three straight days and nights.

He recalls gaining £40,000 during that time, which he lost within an hour.

Philip says: “I’m a recovering alcoholic too. I haven’t had a drink in 27 years, so I have an addictive personality and was predisposed to becoming addicted to gambling.

“Addiction is a disease, but while with any other disease you would seek immediate help and treatment, with addiction you are constantly in denial of the disease and trying to prove you don’t have it.

“I’ve done everything in my power to limit it, like trying to set spending limits and limit my time online, but every attempt has failed. I was power over my gambling.”

With unpaid bills piling up, it wasn’t long before his wife realized something was wrong.

After eight years of gambling, as his debt spiraled out of control, his wife and a friend finally persuaded him to check into Donegal’s White Oak Addiction Treatment Center.

He spent four weeks in rehab and has been recovering ever since.

He does not sugarcoat the mental effects of addiction.

He admits: “You go to bed every night half hoping you won’t wake up in the morning because things are so bad, and you’re aware of the impact it’s having on your mental health and on the people around you.

“You know you’re doing something wrong, but you can’t control it. There were times when bills went unpaid and I couldn’t take care of my own children.

“I went to bed feeling guilty every night. Going into rehab gave me a physical break from gaming, a connection I hadn’t been able to break.”

Philip urges anyone with a gambling problem to seek help and speak up as the first step in taking back control. He believes the gaming industry needs stricter controls – a mission he hopes to achieve through his membership of Stormont APG.


Health Secretary Robin Swann MLA and Department for Communities Secretary Deirdre Hargey MLA are joined by Robbie Butler MLA, Chair of the All Party Group on Reducing Harm Related to Gambling, and Deputy Chair Philip McGuigan MLA at the launch of the Northern Ireland Slots Report

He says: “It’s a very cruel disease and people dig themselves into a hole and feel like there’s no way out, but there’s a lot of help and support groups.

“However, the services are way below what they should be and there needs to be massive investment in all addiction services and I want to see that coupled with a better public health response.

“APG has done a really good job trying to change gambling laws that are outdated and inconsistent with those across the water and in the South. There is a lack of control in the industry. Figures show that over 80 percent of gambling companies’ huge profits come from the 5 percent of people who gamble.

“The addicts drive their profits. During Safer Gambling Week, these companies must take steps to protect people by making it easy for them to self-exclude from websites.

“They must also stop the incentives that get people to gamble, and advertising should be banned as well.”


James Grimes of Gambling With Lives, Matt Gaskell of the NHS Northern Gambling Service and reformed gambler Declan Cregan from Belfast presenting the All Party Group on Reducing Harm Related to Gambling report on slot machines in Northern Ireland

Declan Cregan has a similar story to tell. He was only 16 when he became addicted to gambling after putting £1 into a slot machine.

For the next 11 years, gambling took over his life, robbing him of every penny he made, as well as his confidence and self-esteem.

For three years in recovery, the West Belfast class assistant spends his free time sharing his story with other teenagers at schools and community centers across the province.

Declan is working with reformed gambler Barry Fennell, also from West Belfast, on an educational program for young people through charity Gambling with Lives.

In his 20s, Declan worked as a sales representative and made a lot of money, often thousands a week, but every cent of his earnings went to the bookies or roulette machines, leaving no money to buy groceries. Sinn Fein’s Philip McGuigan on his gambling addiction: ‘I played for three days and nights without a break. I won £40,000 and lost it all within an hour’

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