William Drennan returned to Belfast in 1807 and founded the Belfast magazine which continued the battle for democratic reform, the Rights of Man and Catholic emancipation. However he was becoming alarmed at the increasing influence of the so-called Catholic interest which had no desire to work for reform with progressive Protestants. What Drennan was witnessing was the first stirrings of the rift that would lead to the partition of this island more than 100 years later.
When Hamilton Rowan's exile for 11 years was ended and he was restored to Killyleagh, he continued his charitable work and his fight on behalf of the lower orders and their trade unions. Like many of the surviving Belfast united Irishman he promoted economic and industrial development and built houses for the workers in Killyleagh.
He continued to support the right of Roman Catholics to equal citizenship. He always believed that once this was granted Catholics would shake off priestly authority and behave as enlightened men and free themselves from the political influence of their church. He was sadly mistaken. After emancipation the political influence of the Roman Catholic Church increased and during the 19th century sectarian divisions in Ireland remerged with the ultras on both sides seizing the initiative and eclipsing the non-sectarian democratic liberalism that had been championed by the United Irishmen.
In spite of the total and utter defeat of the United Irishmen, Hamilton Rowan must have felt some satisfaction, in his old age, as he saw how the world had changed. He lived until 1834. The United States of America had proven that Francis Hutcheson ideas could form the sustainable basis for a modern state. It is true that slavery continued but the slave trade had ended and the days of that accursed system were obviously numbered. Catholic Emancipation had been achieved and if universal suffrage not been introduced, the 1832 Reform Act, appeared to Rowan to pave the way for further reform. Just as Rowan had predicted, the Act of Union brought prosperity, at least to Ulster and Belfast, even if it led to the impoverishment and demise of Dublin.
He did not live to see Daniel O’Connell’s mass mobilisation of Catholics for the Repeal of the Union or the triumph of Rev. Henry Cooke's evangelical reactionary crusade amongst Protestants. Hamilton Rowan and William Drennan accepted Francis Hutcheson's optimism regarding the power of human reason, the capacity of humankind for selfless public virtue, and, and the possibility of universal emancipation. Perhaps all appear naive in the light of subsequent history.
However under the influence of Hutcheson the United Irishmen advocated the principles of universal suffrage, religious toleration and a representative legislature.
Nationalists in Ireland have turned many well-known United Irishmen into icons. Archibald Hamilton Rowan and William Drennan have escaped that fate. Perhaps this is because they survived the rebellion.
Modern Unionists may be embarrassed by their United Irish ancestors such as William Drennan and Archibald Hamilton Rowan.
Rowan and William Drennan have a strong claim to be the originators of modern liberal Unionism. However I prefer to regard them as radical Unionists which most historians might see as an oxymoron.
It is a shame that working class loyalists know little of Francis Hutcheson, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, and William Drennan or the contribution of their ancestors to modern democratic thought and human rights.
Francis Hutcheson of Saintfield, Hamilton Rowan of Killyleagh and William Drennan of First Presbyterian Rosemary Street should be icons not just for fully democratic unionists but for all those who hold that a modern state should be based on shared values of freedom, human rights, democracy and pluralism rather than the ethnic origins or religious affiliations of its citizens.
This address by Fergus Whelan was delivered on the occasion of the unveiling of a plaque to Francis Hutcheson in Dublin on 1st December 2012.