Over the past 29 years I have made many Irish friends in Europe, many of whom have held very high office at European level. I started my work in 1979 in the regional committee which was and is so important for Ireland. The co-ordinator for my group was Mr. Tom O'Donnell who has been always a good friend. I am happy to see here Mary Banotti, with whom I also worked closely in the European Parliament.
Mr. Peter Sutherland was an inspiring member of the European Commission. He revolutionised the European airline industry by opening up the European airline sector to competition in the 1980s. We have all seen the clear success of this policy with cheaper air fares. As an island nation, the Irish people are aware of the benefits of this policy more than most.
Mr. Ray MacSharry as EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development reformed the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1992. The Common Agricultural Policy was the first truly European Community policy and it remains an important EU-wide initiative in terms of the EU budget and in terms of what it says about a community built on solidarity and human concerns. For Ireland, it is worth €2.2 billion in payments from Europe to Irish farmers and to Irish rural communities during the current financing perspective from 2007 to 2013.
The then Taoiseach, Deputy John Bruton, and the then Tánaiste, Deputy Dick Spring, ran an impressive Irish Presidency of the European Union in 1996. John, who is a good friend of mine with whom I liaised closely during a crucial time as presidency member of the European Convention, the body which drafted the constitutional treaty, is now a very highly respected and influential EU ambassador to the United States of America.
The internal market Commissioner, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, currently heads up economic policy making at European level and in recent times has been dealing with the EU response to current difficulties on the international financial markets.
In the current legislature, Mr. Brian Crowley, MEP, is chairman of the fourth largest political group. He always has been a good and reliable colleague and friend. Ms Mairead McGuinness, MEP, chaired our committee of inquiry into equitable life insurance. Ms Avril Doyle, MEP, has been just nominated rapporteur on the emission trading scheme and will steer through parliament this key piece of EU climate change legislation.
I have a good working relationship with the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Dick Roche, and with the Leader of the Fine Gael Party, Deputy Enda Kenny, who is from the same pan-European political family as myself. I must be more objective, but I am sure Members will allow me to mention that. Deputy Enda Kenny is now the vice president of the European People's Party.
Not only is Ireland a long-standing member of the European Union since 1973, it is a leading member of the Union and is playing a key role in policy making at a European level. I recall — if I as a German am allowed to say this in this important Chamber — when we were in the process of German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the crucial decisions were taken in Dublin during the 1990 Irish Presidency under the Government of the then Taoiseach, Deputy Charles Haughey, and the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Gerry Collins, who is here. They seized the historical momentum and carefully sought the agreement of the European partners. The current secretary general of the European Commission is an Irish woman, Ms Catherine Day. The country has important ladies in office. I have just come from the castle — I do not know if that is the appropriate word to describe it — but it is a beautiful house where I met Madam President, Mary McAleese, a short while ago. The previous secretary general of the European Commission was also one of your countrymen, Mr. David O'Sullivan.
In 2004, when we had an Irish President of the Parliament, an Irish President of the Council and an Irish secretary general of the Commission, I recall thinking the Irish have taken over the place, but they have done so with charm, good humour and remarkable efficiency. I thank the Members for this. They should take over the leadership of the European Union more often; the so-called bigger countries would learn a great deal from the Irish.
Ireland has been a highly respected member of the European Union from day one. Many countries, particularly the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe who acceded to the Union in 2004 during the Irish Presidency of the European Union, look on this country as a role model in Europe. When I travel to countries such as Poland, Lithuania or Slovakia, I hear people talk about the Irish model of making the most out of the opportunities presented by EU membership and turning their countries into economic success stories. Ireland has left its mark on the Union in many ways.
One policy where Irish influence is very strong in Europe is in the area of development aid. Ireland is the sixth largest contributor of development aid per capita in the world. It will contribute €922 million in development aid this year. As a country that was once poor, but which has grown wealthy within Europe, Ireland has not forgotten what it was to be without. Ireland has been a shining example in a Union which itself shows the way to the rest of the world, and it can be proud of this.
The role of Irish NGOs in overseeing and participating in many EU development aid programmes at all times deserves the highest of praise. Many of these volunteers from civil and religious society work in extremely difficult environments. The European Union seeks to promote democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law around the world. The European Union project is a force for peace. The EU has brought peace to the continent of Europe after two very destructive world wars in the 20th century. As a German, born in September 1945 and growing up in the aftermath of the evil destruction of the Second World War and the Holocaust, my personal commitment to the European project was shaped by the determination of visionaries such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Aldice de Gasperi and others, that never again should there be war between the peoples of Europe. Schuman's dream that war should not only be morally repugnant but also made materially impossible, has been made a reality. This is unique, not only in European history, but in world history also, and is the basis of our European engagement.
I support the European Union participating in peacekeeping operations around the world, with the backing of the United Nations. EU peacekeeping missions have successfully served in ATSI, Indonesia, Palestine, Bosnia and Kosovo. Having brought peace to our continent, I am proud that we are helping to build a global peace. The 4,500-strong EU peacekeeping mission is now being deployed in Chad. This mission will help to address many of the humanitarian problems at present being faced by the 300,000 refugees in the camps in eastern Chad. The men, women and children in these camps have fled from the barbarity of the genocide that is taking place in Sudan. The international community must continue to do more to stop militia attacks against the people of Darfur. This EU peacekeeping operation, with United Nations support, is under the strong leadership of an Irishman, Lt. General Patrick Nash, and will help to bring stability and peace to Chad and the volatile central African region.
The European Union aims to help build a world where peace and understanding triumph over hostility and despair. On the 50th anniversary of Ireland first taking part in United Nations peacekeeping, I should like to pay tribute to all the Irish Army personnel who have served — and continue to serve — on some 75 UN missions to date. The Irish flag has flown together with the United Nations banner in many parts of the world, and I am sure it will continue to do so for many years to come.
By good fortune, my first visit to Ireland as President of the European Parliament is within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This is a useful occasion to reflect on the role that the European Union has played in bringing peace and reconciliation to the island of Ireland. Irish and British membership of the European Union undoubtedly provided the common space that helped to build the close relations between political leaders. These close relations, in turn, helped create the conditions in which peace could flourish.
Since 1995, the European Union has also contributed more than €1.65 billion in financial support to promote economic and social regeneration within the Border counties and in Northern Ireland. This support has been given through a variety of funds, including the INTERREG cross-border programme, the EU PEACE fund, mainstream Structural Funds and the International Fund for Ireland. The European Parliament has always overwhelmingly supported strong EU financial aid programmes for Northern Ireland and the Border counties. The peace process in Ireland can and must be used as a model to help resolve other conflicts in Europe and around the world. Ireland has shown that it can achieve peace but that it takes real courage, determination, leadership, understanding and forgiveness.
As a Catholic, I am impressed that the Seanad starts its meetings with a prayer. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for it. Personalities who do this can forgive and this is part of our beliefs and values. I congratulate the Members on having the courage to pray in their Chamber. This is a very personal remark and I thank the Members for giving this example.