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Maoris greet Prince with polite protest

FOUR years ago, a Maori protester startled the Queen by throwing a black T-shirt at her at the annual New Zealand national day celebrations, which mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the Crown in 1840.

Yesterday, the Prince of Wales was given a Maori independence flag by a protest leader, who was allowed by the New Zealand government, in a new spirit of co-operation with dissident Maoris, to join the official greeting party at the Waitangi Day commemoration.

The flag was handed over by Mike Smith, who is a descendant of Hone Heke, one of the most famous Maori rebel chiefs, who cut down the British flagpole four times in the early days of colonial settlement. 'It was an expression of our sovereignty,' Mr Smith said later, after rubbing noses with the Prince in the traditional Maori greeting.

Maori protesters were out in force at the ceremonies in Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, where the treaty was signed, but apart from banners and chants of 'Honour the Treaty', there were no incidents. The government moved to head off big demonstrations by sending six cabinet ministers to meet Maori leaders to discuss their grievances.

The treaty guaranteed Maoris continued rights to their land, fisheries and forests in exchange for ceding sovereignty over New Zealand to the Prince's great-great- great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Maoris call it a fraud.

Various tribes have lodged 400 claims for return of seized land or financial compensation to a tribunal set up to adjudicate on their grievances. While conceding historic injustices, Doug Graham, the Justice Minister, has said: 'It is utterly beyond the ability of the Crown to fully recompense all claimants for all losses.' He has, however, started a campaign to settle claims by the year 2000, warning the government it may have to find 1bn New Zealand dollars ( pounds 384m) to do so. He said: 'Ignoring the problem creates a time-bomb for the next generation.'

With an opinion poll showing that 61 per cent of New Zealanders want to retain the monarchy - 24 per cent favour a republic - Prince Charles was probably justified in noting his family's 154-year connection with Waitangi and calling it 'a relationship which I sincerely hope will continue into the future'.

If he was discomfited by the decision of the Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, to ignore treaty issues in his speech of the day and concentrate on the UN International Year of the Family, he did not show it.

While Mr Bolger was clearly directing his comments at the 40 per cent of Maori families headed by a lone parent, and at reports of increasing child abuse, some saw his speech as surprisingly near the royal knuckle. He said: 'Attitudes to marriage have changed. Ideas of personal responsibility and social and family cohesion have changed. Some young parents may be concerned as much for their personal fulfilment as for the welfare of their children. It is my hope that the activities in this International Year of the Family will help to find the reasons why more families fail now than previously.'

(Photograph omitted)