Prisoners Abroad charity wins Longford Prize

The whole of Ireland faces the "most exciting chapter" in its history following the establishment of a new power-sharing government in Belfast, the Irish President will say today.

Mary McAleese, who grew up in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, will declare the "nightmare is over", with a spirit of reconciliation developing between former enemies.

She will deliver her upbeat vision of the opportunities ahead for her country in the annual Longford Lecture, sponsored by The Independent. Ms McAleese will speak of the inspiration she has drawn from Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness taking office together in May as First Minister and deputy First Minister.

She will describe it as a "watershed in political developments on our island, a vital step forward in our journey of reconciliation".

Ms McAleese will warn that the Northern Ireland Executive still faces a huge task in eliminating the "embedded culture of sectarianism", but visible progress is under way. She will add: "We are in fact right at the very start of the most exciting chapter ever in the history of the island of Ireland."

The President will say the development has helped the country to "look the past in the face" and approach the future with fresh confidence. "For those of us who have grown up through the Troubles, the reduction in negativity and the growing generosity of spirit has been little short of miraculous."

The Longford Prize, also sponsored by The Independent, has been won this year by a London-based charity that represents the only contact with the outside world for hundreds of British prison inmates around the world.

Prisoners Abroad sends 2,500 newspapers and 9,000 magazines a year, as well as birthday cards and regular newsletters, to Britons convicted overseas.

Isolated in a foreign legal system and often lacking English-speaking cellmates, the deliveries provide an important link for 2,000 Britons jailed abroad each year. Next month they will receive Christmas cards reminding them they have not been forgotten.

Pauline Crowe, the charity's chief executive, said: "In prison there's boredom to the point where it affects your mental health. Receiving newspapers from home gives people something to think about."

The charity, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, was founded to help a handful of travellers caught with drugs on the "hippie trail". It is in touch at any one time with more than 1,000 UK nationals.

They range from 240 in the United States, 128 in Spain, 69 in France and 62 in Thailand to the sole British inmates of prisons in Namibia and Norway.

The award is named after Lord Longford, the penal and social reformer who died in 2001. It recognises "outstanding qualities of humanity, courage, persistence and originality".

Also commended are Joe Baden and the Open Book Project, which encourages ex-offenders back into education, and the Forgiveness Project, which works with prisoners to tackle offending behaviour.

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