Beach, Sir Michael Edward Hicks (1837–1916), chief secretary for Ireland, was born 23 October 1837 in London, elder son of Sir Michael Hicks Hicks Beach, 8th baronet, and Harriet Vittoria Beach (née Stratton) of Northamptonshire. Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford (BA, 1858; MA, 1861), he succeeded (1854) as 9th baronet and became conservative MP for East Gloucestershire (1864–85); he later sat for West Bristol (1885–1906). Disraeli regarded him as one of the tory party's outstanding young MPs and appointed him chief secretary for Ireland 27 February 1874. Tall and thin, with a large black beard, he was familiarly known as ‘Black Michael’, and had a combative manner and a fierce temper. His tenure saw the consolidation of a body of almost sixty home-rule MPs under the leadership of Isaac Butt (qv). Beach refused to countenance home rule, but favoured progressive reforms. He allowed the more severe provisions of previous coercion acts to lapse, sponsored improvements in draining the Shannon basin and in the deep-sea fishing industry, and established a board to oversee intermediate education. His reformist sympathies were looked on with misgivings by some Irish tories, but he had the full support of Disraeli, who promoted him to the cabinet in 1876. In the Irish office he established a reputation for hard work and integrity and won the respect of many Irish MPs, including Butt; even Tim Healy (qv) later conceded that Beach's ‘icy exterior concealed an honest heart’ (Healy, i, 269). Many of his officials lived in fear of his irascibility, but the Irish lord justice of appeal, Gerald Fitzgibbon (qv), described him as ‘the best official I ever met here, for he was death on jobbery and in earnest at his work’ (cited in Curtis, 121n).
He was appointed colonial secretary 4 February 1878 and in June 1885 chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the house of commons. As leader of the opposition (1886), he conducted a vigorous and skilful campaign against the home rule bill. When the tories resumed power, he agreed that Randolph Churchill should become leader of the house, while he reluctantly accepted a return to the Irish office (5 August 1886). He insisted that the lord lieutenant should be an Irishman, and Salisbury appointed the liberal-minded and popular Lord Londonderry (qv). Anxious to tackle the causes rather than just the effects of Irish discontent, Beach favoured a programme of conciliation to include educational and local government reform and relief of economic distress, but circumstances were not conducive to reform. He took office at a time of serious sectarian rioting in Belfast, widespread agricultural depression, and growing agrarian disturbances in the south-west. On his arrival in Dublin he immediately dispatched 1,200 troops to assist the police in Belfast, which calmed the situation there. In August 1886 Maj.-gen. Sir Redvers Buller (1839–1908), who had made his reputation fighting in the Sudan, was appointed special commissioner to restore order in Kerry and Clare. Beach relied heavily on his advice, and on his recommendation Buller was appointed under-secretary (10 December 1886). Both men had considerable sympathy for Irish tenant farmers and were contemptuous of the selfishness and intransigence of some landlords. Beach made strong efforts to encourage landlords to reduce rents and cease evictions, maintaining that there was no greater enemy of property than the landlord ‘who attempted harshly to enact its rights and failed to perform its duties’ (cited in Curtis, 156–7).
Determined as far as possible to govern through the ordinary law, he believed that coercive measures provoked greater lawlessness. He strongly denounced the Plan of Campaign (a tenant combination to reduce rents), which began on 23 October 1886, as an ‘organised system of robbery’ (cited in Curtis, 170). He claimed that the Plan was politically motivated and initiated the arrest of John Dillon (qv), William O'Brien (qv), and other Plan leaders for using violent language in November 1886. They were tried on charges of criminal conspiracy but acquitted 24 February 1887, much to the administration's embarrassment. Beach was forced to admit during the trial that he had put pressure on several landlords to take a more conciliatory attitude towards their tenants. In mid December 1886 he began drafting a permanent crimes bill and a land bill to deal with judicial rents. On the vexed question of a catholic university, he carried on a cordial correspondence with Archbishop William Walsh (qv) (December 1886–February 1887). He established royal commissions to inquire into economic development and the land question (the latter headed by Earl Cowper (qv)), but while awaiting their reports his secretaryship seemed marked by paralysis and indecision. He received little support from the prime minister, Salisbury, who believed that Ireland needed twenty years of firm government before any major reforms could be made. The strains of the office soon began to tell on Beach. Baited relentlessly by nationalist MPs in the commons, he occasionally lost his temper, and his outbursts provided further ammunition for nationalists. Unwilling to administer a pro-landlord Irish policy, suffering from cataracts that threatened his sight, and in a state of general exhaustion, Beach resigned the Irish office (4 March 1887) and was replaced by Arthur Balfour (qv). Nationalists celebrated the resignation of a senior tory minister as a major victory.
Beach proved an efficient chancellor of the exchequer (1895–1902), and was a firm opponent of tariff reform. He continued to take a strong interest in Irish affairs, advising on legislation and carefully scrutinising Irish expenditure. When Balfour (with whom his relations were often strained) became prime minister in 1902, Beach resigned. In 1906 he became Viscount St Aldwyn (cr. earl 1915), and played little further part in politics. He died in London 30 April 1916. He married first (1864) Caroline Ewes (d. 1865); and second (1874) Lady Lucy Catherine, daughter of Hugh, 3rd Earl Fortescue: they had a son and three daughters.