The Aspire programme was set up to support young men who are marginalised from communities and at risk of becoming involved in criminal or paramilitary activity.

Dr Geraldine O’Hare from the Probation Board Northern Ireland (PBNI) talks to us about their Aspire project set up in 2017.

The Fresh Start Agreement of November 2015 set out the Northern Ireland Government’s commitment to tackling paramilitary activity and associated criminality. It set up an independent three-person panel – the Fresh Start Panel – to make recommendations on the disbandment of paramilitary groups. Its report was published in June 2016 (NI Executive, 2016).

The report contained a number of recommendations for a new strategic approach to tackling paramilitary activity.  Recommendation B 12 stated: “Some young men are at particular risk of being drawn into criminal activity and a cross departmental approach will be required to help achieve better outcomes…. We recommend that the Executive, in conjunction with the Probation Board, should develop, fund and implement an initiative focused on young men who are at risk of becoming involved, or further involved, in paramilitary activity. This initiative should be a collaboration between government departments and restorative justice partners to combine restorative practices and peer mentoring with targeted support in respect of employment, training, housing, health and social services.”

In response to this recommendation the PBNI set up the Aspire Project. The aim of Aspire is to reduce criminality and risk taking behaviour in young men aged 16-30 who are marginalised from communities and at risk of becoming involved in paramilitary activity. It is a collaborative project led by PBNI and delivered in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), NI Alternatives and Community Restorative Justice Ireland.

Aspire aims to address the experiences and needs of these young men by combining restorative practices and peer mentoring with targeted support and improvement in relation to employment, training, housing, health and social services.

The strands of Aspire

There are three main strands through which the Aspire initiative connects with young men:

  1. Full Criteria Statutory Service Users: these are young men that fit all the criteria and as a result are entitled to full supervision by Probation Officers (POs) within the Aspire team. As part of the supervision, there are weekly meetings with a Probation Officer and Probation Services Officers working towards their case plan. POs provide intensive intervention with focus on desistance and alternative pro-social pathways. The statutory service users are further entitled to support from a dedicated Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO) adult mentoring programme for up to 16 weeks.
  2. Semi-criteria Statutory Service Users: these are young men who do not meet all the criteria to be entitled to all the services above. These users remain with their allocated PO in the generic field teams but are offered the support of a peer mentor.
  3. Non-statutory Users: this strand is the Aspire Community Engagement initiative. This is for young men who are not currently known to PBNI (they may have been involved in the criminal justice system previously). It is led by NIACRO in partnership with NI Alternatives and Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI). It consists of community based interventions such as restorative justice approaches. All users on this strand are supported by either NIACRO mentors or support workers from NI Alternatives or CRJI for up to 16 weeks.

The work done by practitioners with the service users has been accentuated by the focus on personal development, stable social, employment and personal life. They also work to set users up with adequate support for substance related/mental health issues and other offending related factors.

Additional services

In May 2020, ASCERT incorporated a specific mental health and addictions therapeutic support service from the established Regional Rapid Response Addiction Service which will have dedicated resources to support clients from the Aspire project in relation to mental health issues, addiction issues and where there is dual diagnosis (combined mental health and addiction problems). This is delivered using a team of skilled practitioners and therapists across a range of disciplines suitable for addiction and mental health interventions in an integrated support model that can support their needs using a collaborative approach with PBNI and the service user.

ASCERT provides a wraparound service to ensure that Aspire clients across PBNI offices in Northern Ireland are fully supported and will help clients understand the underlying causes of their use of substances, mental health problems and strategies to lessen and manage their substance use more effectively while addressing previous traumas and mental health issues and can help clients understand the underlying causes of their substance misuse and their reactions/behaviours to events in their lives and environments, past and present.

In September 2021 the Back on Track programme, developed by PBNI Psychology in conjunction with the Maltese Probation Service, was launched and is being piloted by the Aspire team. The intervention aims to address the problematic thinking and behaviour that has influenced and led to offending behaviour. Highly trained programme facilitators will work with each individual on a one to one basis to identify the issues that may have caused offending. They will then help young people understand how to regulate their behaviour and develop coping strategies. The intervention will help young people tackle drug and alcohol misuse and look at how masculinity, self-worth and relationships impact upon decision making. The programme aims to help integrate those at risk of being excluded, labelled and stigmatised because of their actions as research shows further marginalisation leads to further offending. The programme, due to be reviewed December 2021, is therefore about breaking the cycle of criminality and helps young men turn away from offending and become valued members of society.  

Eligibility Criteria

Potential service users are usually referred by POs and NIACRO both within the prisons and the community. Referrals can also be received from prison staff. The manager of the initiative has a final decision on who meets the criteria.

Whilst the main criteria for inclusion in the initiative is to be a 16-30-year-old male either subject to statutory supervision or outside the criminal justice (non-statutory), there are other ones:

  • Originating from familial history of intergenerational trauma and high social deprivation
  • suffering from mental health issues and low levels of self-esteem
  • may be in drug debt and involved in drug and/or alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour
  • suffering from lack of prospects and social marginalisation
  • suffering from unemployment and low educational attainment
  • say be under threat (or previous threat) within their community
  • looking to ‘find their place, a sense of belonging’.

The criteria are evidence-based. Based on research, PBNI identified characteristics which increase the likelihood of vulnerability to criminality and paramilitary influence.

In addition to the personal criteria, there are some geographic criteria as well. Specifically, the initiatives mainly focussed on areas where paramilitary influence is most rampant. Such areas include: North and West Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Larne Carrickfergus and others. It must be noted that the geographic criteria aren’t exhaustive and the Aspire team accepts referrals from across Northern Ireland.

Evaluation of the Initiative

One year after its establishment, the impact of Aspire was measured by the NI Statistics and Research Agency. The findings demonstrate positive outcomes and also highlight challenges and recommendations for the future direction of the project.

One major benefit of the Aspire initiative has been the provision of practical support by mentors. For vulnerable service users just released from prison and struggling to cope with life without penitentiary constraint, the mentor support has been necessary. With this support, they have gained access to critical services ranging from benefits to healthcare. Many of these mentors have also been advocates with and through whom the service users can communicate. As one service users describes his experience:

“I woke up with butterflies in my stomach, I have a split personality and hear voices. I get a doctor’s appointment for say 10am and I start getting all worked up from then. When I see the doctor I’m all worked up and blow it. When the mentors come they can help. They can explain what’s going on instead of me just losing it”

In fact, 71% of users agreed that Aspire helped them with unemployment and other critical service through support.

There were also statistically significant decreases between pre- and post-Aspire ACE scores (i.e. the likelihood of re-offending score) among those who successfully completed the programme and were supervised by an Aspire PO.

Overall the qualitative and quantitative evaluation of Aspire evidences an initiative that has and continues to achieve its aims. It is an initiative evidently appreciated by the service users and practitioners alike.

Covid-19 has continued to have an adverse impact on service users, with many reporting feelings of increased marginalisation, feeling socially isolated - coinciding with a deterioration in their mental health. Aspire service delivery has focussed on providing additional support through increased telephone contact with service users, checking in with them and having focussed conversations on how they can keep safe. One-to-one interventions have focussed on coping skills, respectful relationships and drug and alcohol issues. Service users remain very positive about the support they are receiving from the service, as is evident from the feedback from case studies and exit questionnaires. 

The programme is currently funded until March 2022. 

For more information about Aspire, please contact 


This case-study was compiled by Michael Farinu in 2019 and updated by Jason Watt in 2021.

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