The Ireland of my childhood just a few decades ago boasted political independence but economically was almost totally dependent on its former colonial power. In effect Ireland was the poorest region of the wider British economy. As a people we gave up our young to emigration, breaking the hearts of our families and the backs of our communities. It diminished our sense of who we were.
In 1973 Ireland joined the European Economic Community as its poorest member state. It was this choice that paved our way for the transformation that brought us from stagnation to opportunity and achievement, from being a failed entity in a regional economy to being a competitive player on the global market.
Robert Schuman once wrote that an Irish saint, Saint Columbanus, was "the patron saint of those who seek to construct a united Europe". In the sixth century and early part of the seventh century this abbot, poet, scholar and preacher co-founded western monasticism in early medieval Europe.
His remains today lie in Bobbio in Italy, where I made a pilgrimage a few weeks ago. This early Irish European, in a letter exhorting the Pope to "arise from his sleep", described the Irish as ultimi habitatores mundi - the inhabitants of the edge of the world. My standing before you as the President of the European Parliament, representing that "edge of the World" of which Columbanus wrote, carries a message for the wider Europe, namely that the heart of European democracy is open to all, irrespective of size.Reuse content