Dáil statements to mark Europe Day have become an important fixture in our annual political calendar. This is not least a reminder of the democratic idea that is at the heart of the European Union and the shared values underpinning it. It was on 9 May 1950 that Robert Schuman set out his vision for a new form of co-operation in Europe. The historic Schuman Declaration invited a new beginning for the European Continent, one that would end generations of deeply destructive conflict and division and set the path to what has evolved to become today's European Union.
Europe Day marks the successful development, over decades, of a deeply interconnected area of peace, stability and shared prosperity on the Continent of Europe. It is inspired by giving practical and multilateral expression to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in December 1948, less than 18 months before the Schuman initiative. It reminds us of the deep bond that is the part we play together in advancing and defending our shared values through the democratic process.
That we are marking Europe Day 2022 here in the Oireachtas is especially appropriate. Exactly 50 years ago today, on 10 May 1972, the Irish people made one of the most consequential decisions in the history of the State, voting by an overwhelming majority to join the then European Communities. More than 83% voted "Yes" to approve the Third Amendment to the Constitution, amending Article 29 to enable Community legislation to have the force of law in Ireland. Of the 1.8 million eligible voters, 1.2 million voted - a turnout of 70.9% - and all constituencies across the country were solidly in favour. The lowest "Yes" vote, recorded in Dublin South-West, was 73%, and the highest, in Donegal North-East, was 91.7%. That referendum followed the signing in Brussels on 22 January 1972 of the accession treaty by Jack Lynch, as Taoiseach, and Dr. Patrick Hillery, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Few events in our history as an independent State have been so transformative.
The five decades since have witnessed Ireland emerge as a truly modern and open economy and society, one that contributes to and benefits from the close relationship and co-operation it enjoys with its European partners. Far from diminishing our sovereignty as a people, our membership of the European Union has helped to strengthen it, giving us a reach and influence that we would not otherwise enjoy. Not all were positively disposed to the new possibilities that joining the European Communities would open. Our newly found independence, just 50 years old, was fragile and jealously guarded but those convinced that Ireland's future lay in Europe showed the courage to imagine a new Ireland with a more confident and optimistic future. Jack Lynch described it as a courage to respond to "the call made by the founding members to other countries of Europe who shared their ideals to join in their efforts to establish the foundations of an ever-closer union among the European peoples". This included not least the ideal of a vital force for peace in the world, and an ever-increasing contribution to the economic and social progress of developing nations. As is so often the case, the courageous decision was the right decision. The past 50 years have seen a transformative and overwhelmingly positive impact of EU membership across all dimensions of our society.
The shared community we joined has widened and deepened in the 50 years since. It has become a beacon of democracy and prosperity, especially for those in our wider neighbourhood who want to join, and to enjoy the benefits and the protections that come with belonging to a community of values and of laws. During our EU Presidency of 2004 it was our honour and privilege to welcome ten new member states, mostly countries from central and eastern Europe that emerged as new and restored democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, we see the next wave looking to join - the countries of the western Balkans as well as countries like Georgia, Moldova and, of course, Ukraine.
For the people of Ukraine, the journey to EU membership is an aspiration of the most profound kind. As we meet, it is enduring an horrific and violent war orchestrated by a man and by a regime that does not want to see Ukraine fulfil its European aspiration and perspective. Irish people have been enormously moved by the extraordinary courage and bravery of the people of Ukraine in defending their country and their right to shape their own future. We have opened up our country, and indeed our homes, to welcome those fleeing from the war, guided by an empathy rooted in our own history and strong values. President Zelenskyy, including in his remarks to the joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas on 6 April, has called for accountability for the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes in Ukraine, and for an accelerated process to allow Ukraine to join the European Union.
I have made clear to him that he has my full support and I know that sentiment is shared across this House. I reiterated our support to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal when I met him in Shannon last month.
Ireland is not acting alone in our response. We are a committed member of the wider European family. Our membership of the European Union provides us with a seat at a shared table and a voice at the heart of Europe. The Union has rightly condemned the war as inhumane, immoral and unjustifiable, and has taken unprecedented decisions and actions to lend its support to Ukraine. Acting together, we have moved swiftly to adopt the strongest, most hard-hitting packages of sanctions in our history. We are providing billions of euro in support for the people of Ukraine. With our international partners, we are committed to helping to rebuild a free and independent Ukraine when the war is over.
The EU is one of the finest examples of conflict resolution and peacebuilding the world has ever seen. Next month, I hope to have the honour of unveiling a bust of one of the greatest Irish people and Europeans of the 20th century, John Hume, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It will stand in a place where he was held in enormously high regard and where he made an immense contribution. John Hume told the European Parliament that, from his own experience, the three principles at the heart of the European Union are the same principles that came to underpin peace in Ireland. They are respect for difference - after all, that is what all conflict is about - institutions that respect difference; and working together in the common interest and, in doing so, breaking down the barriers of the past.
The EU played a significant part in our journey towards peace and reconciliation on this island. It provided a valuable shared space in which Irish and British Ministers could co-operate and get to know each other. Those relationships helped to develop the mutual trust and understanding that were so important throughout the peace process. Our European partners also made, and continue to make, their contribution through the strongest and most steadfast of support by way of generous peace and reconciliation programmes that benefit communities North and South and strengthen prosperity across this island.
Our EU partners have stood by Ireland as we worked together to manage the unique challenges for this island resulting from the UK's decision to leave the European Union, making the objective of sustaining peace, avoiding a hard border and protecting the all-island economy a major priority from the very beginning of negotiations. It is perhaps hard to believe that as we approach the sixth anniversary of the British referendum, we are still discussing the arrangements between us. Where we are is a reflection of the genuine complexity of what was presented as a simple question, when it was anything but. As we continue work to find a way forward on the Northern Ireland protocol and make its operation as smooth and seamless for the people of Northern Ireland as possible, our EU partners stand with us and in support of peace and the Good Friday Agreement. Like Ireland, our EU partners want to build a strong and productive relationship with the UK for the future. As we have seen with Ukraine, we are stronger when we work together. However, a strong and productive relationship can only be built on a firm foundation of trust.
When I visited the National Archives of Ireland in January to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the accession treaty, I made the point that EU membership exposed Ireland to new ideas and to new, more generous and compassionate ways of thinking. Membership gave us the impetus we needed to strengthen our human rights record, drive forward civil and social rights, introduce gender equality legislation, improve protection of workers' rights and become a much more tolerant, kinder and inclusive country than the Ireland of 1972. We now play our part in seeking to advance and defend the Union's shared values, namely, respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights within the Union and throughout the world. We are proud that Ireland has become a beacon to others of what the EU can help a country to achieve, never more so than when we hosted the Day of Welcomes for the new member states in May 2004.
The EU will continue to evolve in the coming years. Yesterday's report from the Conference on the Future of Europe marks another contribution towards shaping its future. It has been an unprecedented exercise in EU-wide direct citizen engagement and has generated a huge number of ideas and suggestions that will require careful and considered reflection. As we look back on the 50 years of our membership, it is important that we look to the future too. I hope people across Ireland, including Deputies in this House and all those who value the EU and its contribution to this country and the world, continue to make their voices heard. We have much to contribute and much to gain.
Speaking at the historic signing ceremony in Brussels in 1972, the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, remarked:
Geography has placed us on the periphery of the Continent. But we are an integral part of Europe, bound to it by many centuries of shared civilisation, traditions and ideals. Ireland, because of historical circumstances, did not participate in the past in all the great moments of European experience but the Irish people have in many periods of our history been deeply involved in the life and culture of the European mainland. Since statehood, my country, conscious of its European past, has sought to forge new and stronger links with the Continent. In this we were renewing and revitalizing historic bonds.
I endorse his words today. I believe the same spirit of optimism, aspiration and hope should remain a powerful guiding force as we mark Europe Day, reflect on what has been and imagine what is yet to come.