Balfour, Gerald William (1853–1945), chief secretary for Ireland, was born 9 April 1853 in Edinburgh, fourth son of James Maitland Balfour, country gentleman and MP, and Lady Blanche Harriet Cecil, daughter of the 2nd marquis of Salisbury. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a fellow in 1878 and lectured in classics. Finding academic life uncongenial, he turned to politics and was elected conservative MP for Central Leeds (1885). He acted as private secretary to his older brother Arthur James Balfour (qv), then president of the Local Government Board (1885–6), assisted him at the Irish office (1887–91) and served on several parliamentary committees. Given his low-key parliamentary career, there was some surprise when he was appointed chief secretary for Ireland (4 July 1895). He took office during a relatively quiet period: agrarian agitation had died down, nationalists were bitterly divided, and the prospect of home rule had receded. In a speech to his constituents in Leeds he announced that the government ‘should be glad enough, no doubt, to kill home rule with kindness if we could, but whatever may be the result of our efforts, our intention is to do our utmost to introduce and pass such measures as will really promote the interests of the material prosperity of Ireland’ (Times, 17 Oct. 1895). Nationalists immediately seized on the expression ‘killing home rule with kindness’ (which Balfour was the first to use) as an example of tory duplicity, and it was constantly thrown back at him throughout his secretaryship.
The quiet state of the country and the massive unionist majority in the commons gave him considerable scope to introduce reforms. Believing that peasant proprietorship was the best way to solve the Irish land question, he drafted a land bill that simplified and widened the purchase provisions of his brother's 1891 act, advancing £36 million for purchase at lower interest rates and with longer repayment periods; it also increased legal protections for the tenant. These provisions were much criticised by Irish landlords and severely attacked in the commons by Edward Carson (qv), but the bill was passed in August 1896. The bill had opened up tensions between Balfour and his more pro-landlord viceroy, Lord Cadogan (qv). Unlike Balfour, Cadogan had a seat in the cabinet, but with Arthur Balfour and his uncle Lord Salisbury the dominant personalities in the government, the political initiative lay with the chief secretary and he determined Irish policy: he did, however, treat Cadogan with respect and sensitivity, and Cadogan generally supported his policies. Often compared unfavourably with his elder brother, Gerald lacked Arthur's intellectual depth, quick tongue, and political ruthlessness, and his pedantic approach often led him to be caricatured as a schoolmaster. He was, however, much liked in Dublin Castle for his genial personality and respected for his hard work: he personally directed all the departments under his control, regularly attended departmental committees, and assiduously read weekly reports and all important documents.
His difficulties increased after the financial relations commission reported in 1896 that Ireland was being overtaxed by £2,750,000 a year, and Irish nationalists and unionists united in protest. In 1897 he introduced the Supreme Court of Judicature (Ireland) Bill, which rationalised the Irish courts system, eliminating several judicial positions. His most important legislative provision was the Local Government (Ireland) Act (1898), which he skilfully piloted through parliament. The act replaced the old grand juries with county and district councils, elected triennially on a broad franchise which included women. An important milestone in Irish democratisation, the act contained no special treatment for property owners or minorities, broke landlords' grip on local government, and gave the new local authorities substantial fiscal and administrative responsibilities. The work load involved in passing the act was such that it caused Balfour's health to collapse in 1898, but he recovered after some months. His administration was associated with the agricultural reformers of Horace Plunkett's (qv) ‘recess committee’ and oversaw an increase in the income of the Congested Districts Board (CDB) and its powers to acquire, improve and redistribute land. He inaugurated a programme of relief works to cope with the potato failure of 1897–8, including light railways and drainage schemes. Plunkett's influence contributed to the establishment in 1899 of a Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI), which assumed responsibility for fisheries, the collection of statistics, and research into crop improvements and livestock breeding. Although wary of excessive state interference in the economy, Balfour believed this body would encourage Irish farmers' initiative and self-reliance, and lay the foundations for a stable and prosperous society. Nationalists praised many of his measures and Tim Healy (qv) later described him as ‘an unselfish and learned statesman’ (Healy, ii, 437). However, his land and local government reforms were strongly opposed by conservative proprietors, who saw them as a betrayal of the landed interest. When one of them complained to Balfour that if he persisted in his policy the landlords would leave Ireland, Balfour was said to have replied ‘Let them go’ (O'Brien, 9). He was also criticised by unionists for appointing the former Parnellite MP T. P. Gill (qv) as secretary of the DATI, the catholic William Starkie (qv) as president of QCG (1897), and the former home ruler W. L. Micks (1851–1928) as secretary of the CDB. Increasingly irritated by unionist complaints, Salisbury replaced him with George Wyndham (qv) in November 1900.
Balfour became president of the Board of Trade, where he was a cautious advocate of preferential tariffs for imperial produce, and in 1905 president of the Local Government Board. Defeated in the 1906 general election, he retired from politics and devoted himself to business and academic interests, particularly research into psychic phenomena, on which he wrote several papers; he strongly believed that certain individuals possessed psychic powers. He succeeded to the Balfour earldom on his brother's death in 1930, and died 14 January 1945 at Whittingehame, East Lothian, Scotland. He married (1887) Lady Elizabeth Edith ‘Betty’ Lytton (1867–1942), daughter of the 1st earl of Lytton; they had a son and five daughters. A vivacious and intelligent woman, she took a keen interest in her husband's work, and while in Ireland became a prominent and popular figure in political and literary circles.