King Solomon was a wise ruler. One of his gems is recorded in Proverbs ch. xi, v.14: "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety." Not everyone agrees. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny repeatedly tells us that he swears by another book, the Constitution of Ireland. This would be admirable, if he were not asking the people in a couple of months' time to tear several pages out of the Constitution by abolishing the Seanad.
Most historians agree that one major achievement of the Irish State, now approaching its centenary, has been its political stability – greater than that of practically any other State founded in the 20th century, despite many existential challenges, including the present struggle to regain our economic sovereignty. Stability attracts both investment and jobs, and makes Ireland a more reliable partner.
When the State was founded in 1922, two-chamber parliaments were the norm. There were special reasons for this in Ireland's case – the reassurance of a minority, economically important at the time though numerically weak. The establishment of a Senate was a commitment made to them by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith and honoured by W.T. Cosgrave. Eamon de Valera thought better of his decision to abolish the second chamber, and revamped it to make it less elitist. Minorities of all kinds have had good reason over the years to value the existence of a chamber that gives them a voice. In all probability, we would never have had Mary Robinson as President without her service in the Seanad. Our current President Michael D Higgins also spent formative years there.
We still have a divided country. The Seanad has provided a mechanism that allows participation by distinguished figures from Northern Ireland that can give us the benefit of their experience, and it allows graduates of our universities from both traditions in the North a vote.
Its abolition would close the door to successors of people like Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers, John Robb, Gordon Wilson and Maurice Hayes, all of whom enriched democracy and made an important contribution to peace and reconciliation.
Undiluted majority rule is dangerous, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland in the past and more recently in countries of the eastern Mediterranean, its legitimacy even between elections is open to challenge, particularly in the internet age.
Abolishing the Seanad would further shift the balance of power in favour of the Government and further weaken parliamentary control already subject in the Dail to wholesale use of the guillotine. The more parliamentary participation is narrowed down, the greater is the likelihood of protest shifting onto the streets.
There is an element of public theatre about parliamentary life, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Are we being invited in effect to substitute a desiccated technocratic efficiency, which is far from being all that it is cracked up to be?
I have been a member of both Houses and, as Minister of State in the Department of Finance between 2008 and 2011, have often taken the same debates and helped steer the same legislation through both Houses.
Frequently, the quality of input has been more informed, constructive and less partisan in the second chamber. The only power it has is the power of argument, but many former ministers have paid tribute to the improvements to legislation made by the Seanad. It provides a safety net and an insurance policy. Light parliamentary scrutiny carries all the dangers of light financial regulation.
Do we need the Seanad? Do we need a President? Do we need a Dail of anything like its present size? One is reminded of the protest of Shakespeare's King Lear, as one support after another is removed from him: "O, reason not the need: our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous."
The quality and potential of our parliamentary system, vital to our well-being, should be improved by reform, not amputation. One would love to think of Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton arguing at cabinet for the money saved to go to extra disability services. It would be just as likely to go towards financing extra tax breaks for foreign employees of multinational companies or other extensions to our two-tier tax system.
There are still savings to be made in the Executive branch, in ministerial supports and top-heavy bureaucracies. If the Seanad is abolished, the number of junior ministers, one of whose functions is to service it, should be reduced.
The proposal by Fianna Fail governments to abolish Proportional Representation and substitute the British first-past-the-post electoral system was inspired by political opportunism masquerading as the public good, and was twice rejected by the people in 1959 and 1968.
They should give the same response to Fine Gael's proposal to abolish the Seanad.
Martin Mansergh is a former Fianna Fail junior minister and Senator