Balfour, Arthur James (1848–1930), chief secretary for Ireland (1887–91), was born 25 July 1848 at Whittingehame, East Lothian, Scotland, eldest son among five sons and three daughters of James Maitland Balfour (1820–56), country gentleman and MP, and Lady Blanche Harriet Cecil (1825–72), daughter of the 2nd marquis of Salisbury; he was named after his godfather, Arthur Wellesley (qv), duke of Wellington.
Early life The greatest influence on his early life was his mother Blanche, an affectionate, domineering and deeply pious woman, who passed on her strong low-church faith to all her children. Educated at Eton (1861–6) and Trinity College, Cambridge (1866–9), Arthur became interested in metaphysical research and published A defence of philosophic doubt (1879) which argued that scientific knowledge depends just as much as theology on an act of faith. He remained keenly interested in scientific and philosophical matters throughout his life: his further works included Foundations of belief (1895) and Theism and humanism (1915).
Elected conservative MP for Hertford (1874–85), he later sat for East Manchester (1885–1906) and the City of London (1906–22). He was strongly influenced by his uncle, Lord Salisbury, prime minister 1882–5, who handed down his patrician political outlook and suspicion of democracy to the young Balfour. It was not until 1882 that he made his mark in parliament when he stated that the ‘Kilmainham treaty’ between Parnell (qv) and Gladstone ‘stood alone in its infamy’ and that the government ‘had negotiated in secret with treason’ (cited in Egremont, 61). Having been a rather unimpressive president of the Local Government Board (1885–6) and secretary for Scotland (1886–7), where he dealt firmly with agrarian agitation in the highlands, he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland (7 March 1887).
‘Bloody Balfour’ 1887–91 With the National League's Plan of Campaign in full swing, the appointment of this inexperienced and willowy young man to such a difficult position was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and glee by opposition parties: ‘We have killed Forster, blinded Beach, and smashed up Trevelyan – what shall we do with this weakling?’ demanded one Parnellite (cited in Curtis, 176). But Balfour was determined to implement the ‘resolute government’ demanded by Salisbury and took office stating that ‘I shall be as relentless as Cromwell in enforcing obedience to the law but . . . as radical as any reformer in redressing grievances’ (Alderson, 71). He disliked the divided authority of the Irish administration and insisted that the lord lieutenant, Lord Londonderry (qv), who had been his fag at Eton, be excluded from political matters and left to supervise patronage and official receptions. Regarding the Irish law officers and judiciary as rather spineless, he surrounded himself with trusted officials, notably Joseph West Ridgeway (qv) as permanent under-secretary, and George Wyndham (qv) as his private secretary. His main crown prosecutor was a young Dublin barrister, Edward Carson (qv). The two men became good friends; in later years, praising Carson's energy and nerve, Balfour claimed that ‘I made Carson and Carson made me’ (Dugdale, i, 147).
Concerned at the difficulty of securing convictions against agrarian activists, he immediately pushed through a draconian crimes act (1887) granting the Irish executive permanent emergency powers to deal with rural combinations, boycotting, and resistance to evictions. Despite a furious assault on the bill by Parnellite MPs, Balfour steered it safely through the commons. On 22 July, using the provisions of the act, he proclaimed eighteen counties and partially proclaimed thirteen others, and on 19 August proclaimed the National League as a dangerous association. He proved fearless in using these powers to prosecute Plan of Campaign supporters, including catholic priests and nationalist and liberal MPs. His prosecution of the League secretary, William O'Brien (qv) and his associate, John Mandeville (qv), led to a confrontation between the RIC and demonstrators at Mitchelstown (9 September 1887), in which the police shot three people dead. Balfour's staunch defence of the police action (despite his private belief that they had panicked) galvanised the RIC and helped restore the morale of Irish administration, which had been badly dented by the indecision of Hicks Beach (qv).
For nationalists, however, the ‘Mitchelstown massacre’ and his general readiness to deal severely with agrarian agitation earned him the title ‘Bloody Balfour’. His insistence that those arrested on political charges should be treated as common criminals further aggravated his unpopularity. Among those arrested in October 1887 was the maverick tory MP Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (qv), who reported that he had overheard Balfour boast of his intention to imprison some of the weaker Parnellite MPs in the hope that incarceration would kill them. Balfour denied the charge, but it caused him considerable embarrassment, particularly when John Mandeville died on 8 July 1888, months after being subjected to harsh treatment in Tullamore jail. Even Salisbury, anxious about the effect on English public opinion, cautioned him against excessive severity, and in the face of considerable opposition Balfour abandoned plans to muzzle the nationalist press. In January 1889 he compounded his hard-line image by issuing detailed instructions on the procedure and equipment (including battering-rams) to be used by crown forces during evictions, and insisting that the military should assist rather than just protect evicting parties. He was strongly opposed to the use of arbitration on estates affected by the Plan of Campaign and instead attempted to turn the tables on the National League by encouraging landlords to combine. In February 1889 he helped to create a syndicate of wealthy landowners to buy out the heavily indebted estate of Charles Ponsonby (qv) in Co. Cork, and worked unceasingly to undermine the Plan on several ‘test estates’ where he concentrated his resources. By 1889 agrarian crime levels were half the 1886 figure. A good harvest and the papal rescript against the Plan (20 April 1888) had contributed to the reduction, but Balfour's relentless enforcement of the crimes act had also done much to cripple agrarian agitation and by 31 October 1889 he could unproclaim most of Ireland.
Reforms 1887–91 Balfour also sought to deal with the root causes of Irish unrest and played an important role in developing a constructive unionist policy for Ireland. A stern critic of irresponsible or absentee landlords, he regarded the Irish land system as ‘essentially and radically rotten’. Believing that the system of dual ownership introduced by Gladstone made conflict between landlord and tenant inevitable, he favoured instead the establishment of peasant proprietorship to introduce order and stability into the Irish countryside. Dismissive of Irish nationalism, he regarded it as a romantic cloak for material motives and believed that once agrarian grievances were remedied, agitation for home rule would dissolve. To remedy the deficiencies of earlier legislation, he put through a land act in 1887 that gave extra protection to tenants threatened with eviction, and amended the 1881 act to include leaseholders, allowing them to have their rents set by the land court. In 1888 and 1891 he initiated further legislation providing extra funds for tenant purchase; the 1891 act made the then unprecedented sum of £33 million available, although its complexity discouraged many would-be applicants.
In some of the marginal lands of the west many holdings were too small or infertile to merit purchase as viable farms. Although Balfour's preference was for mass emigration from poorer districts, he realised that this solution was unpalatable to many Irishmen. He drafted a light railways act (1889) to improve communications with remote districts, and railway construction formed a major element in the relief efforts of 1890–91 to alleviate the failure of the potato crop in the west; he also instigated other relief measures such as the building of roads, piers, and bridges, and the provision of seed potatoes. From 25 October to 8 November 1890 he visited Mayo, Connemara, and Donegal to observe the distress at first hand. Dispensing with formality and bodyguards, he met numerous deputations, discussed the economic ills of the west with local catholic clerics, and was generally warmly received. To promote the agricultural, industrial, and infrastructural development of poorer regions, he established the Congested Districts Board (5 August 1891) under the provisions of the 1891 land act. This proved to be one of the most successful government initiatives in Ireland, and its work drew praise from almost all quarters. Balfour was particularly proud of the board's achievements, claiming that it had done more good for Ireland than a hundred domestic parliaments would ever do. Although nationalist MPs mocked his policy of ‘light railways and heavy punishments’, many of their constituents were grateful for his ameliorative measures: Carson overheard an old woman in the west exclaim: ‘Thanks to Mary and all the saints and to Bloody Balfour, auld Ireland will be saved yet’ (cited in Young, 116).
In some areas Balfour was less successful, notably in trying to introduce democratically accountable local government by elected baronial and county councils. His proposals were incorporated in the local government bill of 1892 but the limited powers on offer, and the safeguards proposed to placate the propertied interest, proved unacceptable to nationalists, while the same safeguards failed to satisfy most unionists. Similarly, his plans for catholic higher education drawn up in 1889 were thwarted by a broad coalition of opposition, ranging from protestants who objected to public funds being used to endow a catholic university, to catholic bishops unhappy at their proposed exclusion from the governing body. Although he left important issues unresolved, he set in motion an important legislative programme that was continued by subsequent tory administrations.
Assessment Balfour's record establishes him as one of the most effective chief secretaries during the union. While others wilted under the strains of the Irish office, Balfour thrived on them, and his chief secretaryship was the crucial period in establishing his political reputation. He entered Dublin Castle as an untried politician, and left it as a potential prime minister. He later claimed that defending the union had been the central purpose of his political life, and that he valued his Irish achievements above all others. Despite his constructive achievements, he remained a hate-figure for many nationalists – partly because of his apparent imperturbability and his caustic replies to Irish attacks in the commons, and his general attitude of ill-concealed condescension towards Irishmen in general. He saw Ireland as a battlefield between civilisation and barbarism, and regarded Parnell and his followers as unprincipled demagogues who had no respect for property or the rule of law. He never conceded the sincerity of their national aspirations and consistently underestimated the tenacity of Irish nationalism. During the O'Shea divorce scandal Balfour refrained from public comment, but he greatly enjoyed the spectacle of the Irish party tearing itself apart in 1890–91 and urged loyalists not to contest by-elections in 1891, for fear of reuniting nationalists.
Remaining career 1891–1930 After the death of W. H. Smith, Balfour resigned as chief secretary (9 November 1891) to become conservative leader in the commons and first lord of the treasury (1891–2, 1895–1902). He expressed some regret at leaving the Irish office but maintained a strong interest in Irish affairs. He led unionist opposition to the second home rule bill, in and out of parliament, addressing large crowds in Belfast and Dublin in April 1893, and warning the former that they might have to overcome ‘the tyranny of majorities’ (Times, 5 Apr. 1893). While house leader and prime minister (1902–5), he was a member of a cabinet sub-committee on Ireland and assisted in formulating and carrying plans for land, local government, and educational reform during the Irish chief secretaryships of his brother Gerald (qv) (1895–1900), and his former private secretary George Wyndham (qv) (1900–05). Despite the misgivings of the treasury he continued to insist that land purchase should remain a central plank in the conservatives' Irish policy, and helped secure cabinet approval for the ambitious Wyndham land act (1903). However he believed that Wyndham mishandled the devolution crisis of 1904–5, and accepted his resignation in March 1905.
His party torn apart by Joseph Chamberlain's advocacy of tariff reform, Balfour resigned as prime minister in December 1905, and the ensuing general election resulted in an overwhelming liberal victory. As leader of the opposition (1906–11), he was a key figure in the constitutional conference of 1910, insisting that any future home rule bill must be submitted to a referendum, and refusing to consider the federal solution suggested by some moderate unionists. However, his opposition to the reforming liberal administration was not vigorous enough for many conservatives, and Balfour was increasingly seen as an aloof and indecisive intellectual. His inability to satisfy either free traders or tariff reformers, his poor electoral record, and the tory failure to preserve the lords' veto, led to growing criticism in the party, and he resigned as leader (8 November 1911). From then until August 1914 he concentrated much of his attention on Ireland. His Nationality and home rule (1913) argued that Irish nationalists would not be satisfied with any limited measure of self-government but would use it to obtain complete separation. For Balfour, as for his mentor Salisbury, Ireland was the testing ground of imperial resolve, to be held at all costs. In the face of the liberals' decision to press ahead with home rule, he relaxed his earlier aversion to extreme Orangeism, and championed Ulster unionism in militant language which at times rivalled that of Bonar Law. As the political crisis deepened, his language became more restrained, and in 1913 he suggested to Bonar Law and the king that home rule for Ireland with the exclusion of Ulster was the ‘least calamitous’ option available.
After the outbreak of war in 1914 he cooperated readily with the liberal government. He became first lord of the admiralty (May 1915) under Asquith and, as foreign secretary (1916–19) in Lloyd George's administration, he issued the ‘Balfour declaration’ (2 November 1917), expressing official British approval of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and helped negotiate the Paris peace treaties (1919). On resigning from the foreign office (23 October 1919), he retained a cabinet seat as lord president of the council (1919–22, 1925–9). He played a significant part in shaping the Government of Ireland Act (1920), strongly supporting Ulster unionist claims for a six-county state. Although he viewed the Anglo–Irish treaty with deep misgivings, he eventually acquiesced in its signing. He observed that the Ireland taken over by the Free State government was ‘the Ireland that we made’ (Dugdale, i, 181). In the field of inter-imperial relations his ‘Balfour definition’ (1926) recognised the equality of Britain and the dominions and paved the way for the 1931 statute of Westminster.
Although he professed indifference to honours and scorned those who chased them, he received many awards and appointments, including president of the British Academy (1921–30), chancellor of Edinburgh (1891) and Cambridge (1919) universities, OM (1916), KG (1922), and in 1922 was created 1st earl of Balfour . He had many female friends and admirers, but never married. He died 19 March 1930 at Fisher's Hill near Woking, Surrey, and was buried at Whittingehame.