THE QUEEN has agreed, in effect, to apologise for colonial injustices suffered by the Maori people in New Zealand.
Her Majesty will personally give the royal assent to a New Zealand Act of Parliament explicitly acknowledging the injustices suffered by a Maori tribe whose lands were confiscated following a treaty signed by her predecessors.
Normally, the royal assent to New Zealand legislation is given on her behalf by the Governor-General. But on this occasion it will be signed personally by the Queen in London. The New Zealand government balked at a Maori proposal that she read out a statement of apology in New Zealand in November when she is due to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. But Douglas Graham, the minister responsible for land claim negotiations with the Maori people, said "there were no difficulties with the Palace" over her signing the royal assent.
So far as is known, neither the Queen nor her predecessors have ever previously apologised for anything.
The apology stems from the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori chiefs and the Crown, by which Maori sovereignty over New Zealand was given up in return for guarantees of ownership over lands, forest and fisheries. Within 20 years however, the colonial government began wholesale confiscations. The Tainui people of the Waikato - to whom the Queen's apology will be addressed - had three million acres confiscated after the land wars of the mid-19th century, although they remained loyal to the Crown. The land was then sold to British settlers.
It was only in the 1970s that the government began a piecemeal programme to redress the injustices, but Maori claimants demanded that the Queen be involved in the reparations.
"Maoris always saw the treaty as a personal relationship between the royal family and the Maori people," explained Buddy Mikaere, a Maori and the director of the Waitangi Tribunal which is responsible for processing land claims. From the 1880s on, delegations of chiefscame to London to put their grievances to the monarch. But on the advice of the New Zealand government and the Colonial Office, Buckingham Palace remained closed to them.
The decision to make reparations for the land confiscations was not taken lightly, and has opened a hornets' nest of grievances between the Maoris and pakeha (white New Zealanders). But Mr Graham says the problem of confiscated land could not be allowed to fester for ever.
He added that a queue is forming among other tribes for settlements on the lines of the Tainui deal, which returns about 30,000 acres and a payment of pounds 69m.
Buddy Mikaere said: "Many pakeha say that New Zealand was built on the sheep's back, but Maoris say the sheep were grazing on Maori land." They will never get all that land back but the government is gambling that, with Her Majesty's help, it is doing enough to remove the sense of grievance over its loss.
Leading article, page 24
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies