Mr Hayes was cited for his major contribution as chairman of the National European Forum.
President Mary McAleese presented the award at a function in Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel, where the first Irish Constitution was drafted.
Accepting the accolade, Mr Hayes described the worked of the forum as an exercise in "participative democracy. From the outset it has been dedicated to demystifying Europe, to helping the average citizen understand how Europe affects daily life."
He said that women had "benefited hugely" from EU interventions as a result of Ireland's European membership.
Mr Hayes added that "equally standards of protection of workers, consumers and farmers have significantly advanced."
Stressing the objective nature of the forum, he said that its aim always has been to make the role of the EU in the lives of Irish citizens more comprehensible.
"We set out to provide a genuine focus for debate; people holding diverse and conflicting views were encouraged to air them.
"And we listened to them," he said.
To date, the forum has held over 70 meetings 39 plenary sessions in Dublin Castle and 32 regional meeting.
Established by the Government in 2001, it has cross-party support and apart from making the EU more user friendly to ordinary folk, it was also vested with a Special Observer Pillar to ensure that groups in society and organisations had their concerns and interests acknowledged within the broad sweep of EU issues and debates.
Paying tribute to Senator Hayes, Mrs McAleese said: "He brought that feisty, vigorous and passionate independence that provoked and sustained a hugely important debate on Europe, the length and breath of Ireland, in a credible, affirming, encouraging and unbiased form."
"We owe him and the forum a huge debt for its work is a crucial investment in our future," she said.
Other nominees were Minister of State for European Affairs Dick Roche; John Cushnahan, MEP; Brian Crowley, MEP; Mary Davis of the Special Olympics and Dr Miriam Hederman-O'Brien.