The "backstop" has become one of the most contentious issues in discussions surrounding Brexit, but you'd be forgiven for mentally tuning out whenever someone mentions it on the news. In short, it's a legal guarantee – a safety net (the term comes from baseball) – in Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, designed to ensure that there remains no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
What happens to the Irish border will affect how goods and services are traded between the two countries, but it's also important because of what a hard border would represent for the people of Northern Ireland. Like many interstate borders in the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is currently inconspicuous: there are no border posts, physical barriers or checks on anyone or any goods that make their way from one side to the other. Almost everyone believes it's imperative it remains that way, because reintroducing border checks would bring back memories of the Troubles – the 30-year long conflict between Republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,500 lives – and no one wants more violence in the North.
At the heart of the issue is the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal that brought the Troubles to an end and created a new government that saw power shared between Unionists and Republicans, which many believe is under serious threat because of Brexit. The Brexit backstop, wrote businesswoman Dearbhail McDonald recently, "is about so much more than tariffs and trade. It is about our identity. Brexit tears at the heart of the Good Friday agreement, which allows people like me, a Catholic who grew up in Newry, or a loyalist from east Belfast, to identify as British, Irish or both – and to celebrate our different allegiances."
Many young people in Northern Ireland have grown up listening to older relatives' stories of customs and security checks and violence, and they're increasingly worried about what a no-deal Brexit could mean for them.
Victoria Johnston, 20, is a student and freelance writer who grew up eight miles from the border in County Fermanagh ("coincidentally, the same county as Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster," she quips. They even went to the same school). Despite coming from a Unionist background, Johnston doesn’t identify with any of the mainstream Unionist parties because of their stance on social issues, particularly when it comes to abortion.
"I’m horrified by the disregard that those in power have shown toward the Irish backstop and indeed, the people of Northern Ireland," Johnston tells Refinery29, adding that despite "Brexit day" [29th March] being less than two months away, "those who live in border counties and communities have no idea what procedures have been put in place. We don’t know if there will be infrastructure on the border; we don’t know if we'll need a visa to travel to neighbouring counties; we don’t even know if the conditions of our long-fought-for peace process will be upheld. We have been kept in the dark."
Johnston says Brexit and the border is the talking point among her friendship group right now. "I have good friends from County Donegal who have no idea whether or not they’ll be able to cross the border with ease to travel to university on 29th March. There is a lot of fear – primarily due to the lack of information we’ve been given."
Conversations have turned to "considering whether or not a united Ireland is inevitable," Johnston says. (This weekend, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald made the case for an Irish unity referendum if the UK fails to secure an agreement, to avoid the possibility of a hard border.)
"My biggest fear at the moment would be a hard border and a return to physical infrastructure along the border. I’m also concerned about how this could impact travel across the region. The potential of a return to the violence of the past is also a legitimate fear among many," she says, pointing to the bomb attack in Derry in late January.
A common view shared by the young women we spoke to is that neither the EU nor British government fully understands the gravity of the situation for the people of Northern Ireland or the Republic. "With the EU being adamant that there will be no renegotiations in regard to the backstop, we in Northern Ireland are very anxious," says Emma Bonner, 25, a graduate and current sports president at Ulster University, who believes her right to dual citizenship could be under threat – something that has barely been discussed outside of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. "Having been a baby during the peace process, I understand the importance of not having a hard border. I'm an Irish citizen and under the Good Friday Agreement I have the right to always be an Irish citizen."
Bonner also points out that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU as evidence of the lack of understanding from outside. "That this has been ignored completely isn't only going against democracy, but also shows the ignorance that the British government have towards Northern Ireland, our history and our people. We are not being listened to." Brexit is one of the main conversational topics among Bonner and her friends, and while her gang may be "politically diverse," they share one belief in common: "We have come through a very violent history and we know the importance of peace. Brexit has and will disrupt this peace, which we millennials and generation Z will detest."
Northern Irish journalist Amanda Ferguson, 39, who was born and raised in north Belfast, County Antrim, has been covering Brexit for work nonstop and spends the rest of her time talking about it with friends. Ferguson, who doesn't identify with any of the main Northern Irish political parties, says "the vast majority are deeply concerned about what is happening". Ferguson also knows "a cohort of Leave-supporting Irish Republicans, who are delighted with how badly the negotiations are going." Their view? "The harder the Brexit, the closer to Irish unity they will be."
Sensible decisions need to be made – and fast, she adds, describing the current state of the Brexit negotiations as they pertain to the Irish backstop as both farcical and worrying, yet unsurprising. Ferguson points out that the British border on the island of Ireland wasn't even a consideration in the build-up to the EU referendum, and yet violence on that strip of land has become a very real danger. "I think a hard border would be disastrous. I am hopeful a deal will be struck in the final days before the deadline."
The women we spoke to are all clear on another point, which Johnston sums up. "It's important that those in the UK take stock of what's happening in Northern Ireland. There has been plenty of talk about 'the border' but very little conversation surrounding the people who live along the border. This hasn't been the first time that Northern Ireland has been ignored within the halls of Westminster and it won’t be the last."
Ferguson is similarly adamant that an inability to understand the people of the North is doing everyone a disservice. "Belfast isn’t as British as Finchley. We have a diverse population and a unique position in the UK. Some of us are British. Some of us are Irish. Some of us identify as both, as the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided for. Our peace wasn’t an event, it is a process and it’s fragile."
The DUP, Ferguson adds, are in the minority when it comes to Brexit. "Yes, it was a UK-wide referendum, but Northern Ireland voted to remain and that isn’t always acknowledged. The majority of political parties here back the backstop. Most business leaders, farmers and civic voices are also in favour of the backstop. I want people to know the backstop and Brexit isn’t just about the economy and trade and regulations. It’s also about people and their way of life."