If I told you that an Irish Prime Minister was born in 1839 you would doubtless respond, correctly, by pointing out that a) we don’t have a Prime Minister we have a Taoiseach and b) that anyone born in Ireland in 1839 would have spent his entire working life as a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland of which there nearest thing to an Irish Prime Minister was the Duke of Wellington in the early 19th century.
Except, of course, that John Balance, born in Co.Antrim in 1839 went on to become 14th Prime Minister of New Zealand. Born into farming stock Balance wanted to do anything but farm and left for Belfast at the age of 18. From there he migrated to Britain, working in the ironmongery business in Birmingham. At the age of 24 he married Miss Frances Taylor and migrated to New Zealand in 1866 for the betterment of her health. The move had little effect as, tragically, she died two years later.
An educated and bookish man he indulged his literary side by establishing a newspaper, the Herald, in the town of Wanganui, where the couple settled. He was man of independent views. For example, while participating in a military campaign in 1867 against a local Maori uprising he criticized the conduct of the same campaign in his newspaper.
From campaigning journalism he moved inexorably into politics – elected for Wanganui from 1879 as an Independent he quickly entered the New Zealand cabinet as Minister for Customs and then Minister for Education. Balance had witnessed religious riots in Belfast. The spectacle turned him into a life-long secularist. He inherited his politics from his mother, a Quaker, and went on to found the New Zealand Liberal party – the first organized political party in that country.
In 1881 he lost his seat by four votes after a carriage containing 7 of his supporters broke down and they were unable to vote. Re-elected in 1884 he held three further ministerial positions until the government he supported fell. In 1889 he became leader of the opposition and in 1890, after a successful election campaign he became Prime Minister at the head of a Liberal Party government.
Ballance was responsible for introducing highly progressive systems of income and property tax and under his leadership the New Zealand economy expanded. He also cultivated good relations with the country’s Maori population, settling a lot of their nagging land issues. He was also responsible for the introduction of female suffrage. New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote.
He was at the height of his powers and popularity in 1893 when, tragically, he died after an operation for an intestinal ailment at the age of 54.
Balance has been described as ‘unassuming and unpretentious’ in style and personality, quiet, polite, tolerant and patient. How he ended up as a politician, therefore, is a complete mystery.
John Balance, the Antrim-born 14th Prime Minister of New Zealand, was born, 176 years ago, on this day.
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