On the surface, it looks as if peace has broken out at Waitangi - and possibly in New Zealand - this year.

Titewhai Harawira, who reduced Helen Clark to tears four years ago, yesterday escorted the Prime Minister back on to Te Tii Marae for a formal Ngapuhi welcome.

In a carefully staged act of political symbolism, Mrs Harawira and another elder walked arm in arm with Helen Clark through a corridor of Maori wardens to the lower marae, where she sat by the Prime Minister and translated speeches for her.


Veteran Maori activists, such as Mike Smith - the man who attacked the pine on One Tree Hill - watched Mrs Harawira's performance scornfully from the sidelines, but made virtually no attempt to disrupt the ceremony.

The scene was a complete contrast to 1998, when Mrs Harawira challenged the Labour leader's right to speak at the marae, reducing her to tears and keeping her from returning to Waitangi for four years.

The calculated attempt to embarrass Helen Clark was typical of a series of high-profile Maori protests during the 1990s, designed to infuriate Pakeha, catch media attention and highlight Maori grievances.

In some of the more memorable incidents:

* Mike Smith used a chainsaw in 1994 to attack the base of One Tree Hill, which he described as "a symbol of colonisation, a symbol of the holocaust".

He succeeded in gaining national attention, although the response from Pakeha was almost universally hostile - especially when the tree had to be cut down, as a result of his attack, six years later.

* In 1995 a protester at Waitangi Day ceremonies spat at the Governor-General, Dame Catherine Tizard. As a result, the Crown was not represented at the ceremony again until 1999, when Sir Michael Hardie Boys took on the peacemaking role.

* Also in 1995, the country seemed to grind to a halt for the 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui. Maori protesters - led by Ken Mair, Archie Taiaroa and Tariana Turia - reclaimed the land as Pakaitore and said it was rightfully theirs, despite an 1880 document vesting it in the council.

* In 1996 Maori language student Benjamin Peri Nathan walked into the Royal Yacht Squadron's clubrooms on the Auckland waterfront, pulled a hammer from his clothing and smashed through a glass display case to severely damage the America's Cup.

Mr Nathan, who wore a Maori sovereignty T-shirt and chanted in Maori while he attacked the cup, later said at his trial that the cup represented everything he despised. He felt a moral and legal right to attack it under the Treaty of Waitangi and the Maori Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of whether the protesters achieved their aims - critics said they merely alienated middle New Zealand but supporters claim the Moutoa Gardens occupation paved the way for a joint management plan six years later - they dominated the political agenda.

For almost three months in 1995, the Moutoa Gardens occupation coloured but public perceptions of Jim Bolger's National Government. Then in 1998 simmering race relations - accentuated by the performance of NZ First's Maori MPs in the first MMP coalition Government - dominated a byelection in Taranaki-King Country.

Act leader Richard Prebble quickly seized on the tension to make race relations one his party's key themes, along with welfare reform and law and order, in 1999.

So what has happened since then to the fears of social unrest and the radicals who once brought the country to a standstill?

Three years on, many of the leading activists of the 1990s are still busy, but not grabbing headlines the way they used to.

Prominent Maori lawyer Annette Sykes is still fighting for her people, but her opponents this time are Maori, not Pakeha.

She is working with Orakei residents in 20 former state houses in Kupe St. More than two decades after the Bastion Point occupation, they are fighting plans by their own Ngati Whatua O Orakei Maori Trust Board to remove them to make way for a luxury retirement home.

Mr Mair led a protest last September which stopped the auction of rare 19th century photographs of Whanganui River Maori, but he has been more prominent lately in the campaign against genetically modified food - a cause which has attracted other Maori activists.

Some radicals have crossed the fence altogether. Mrs Turia is now Associate Corrections Minister. She has regularly been in trouble for intervening to assist prisoners and for describing the slaughter of Taranaki Maori by colonisers as a "holocaust", but she is now part of the system she used to attack from the outside.

One former Waitangi regular and activist in the Te Kawariki group, Hone Harawira, now chairs the electoral college which selects board members for the new Maori television channel.

Professor Ranginui Walker, the retired former head of Maori studies at Auckland University, has another theory about the recent decline of radicalism.

"For a start, activists grow old - they mature, they have families," he says only half-jokingly.

Dr Walker also believes treaty settlements have reduced national tensions, especially as both Labour and National are committed to the process.

He thinks many Pakeha, who still resent the multimillion-dollar settlements, fail to realise that the alternative could be much worse.

"The treaty is actually saving us from being like Ireland or Bosnia. We have a mechanism for dealing with historical injustice."

He is optimistic that Pakeha willingness to work constructively with Maori is improving. He has just come back from a marae welcoming ceremony for the new head of Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua, where half the guests were Pakeha. At his local marae in Opotiki at least a quarter of the population is usually Pakeha.

"Maori and Pakeha are more like each other than they care to admit. There's a high degree of intermarriage, which people forget is an important part of integration in this country."

Unlike the Maori protest movement, Dr Walker believes it is unrealistic to insist that all Maori must benefit before treaty settlements are considered a success.

"You always have a dispossessed minority. You just have to learn to live with that, like a dog has to learn to live with fleas. You can't have a totally homogeneous society - there's social stratification and there's losers and winners."

But on his cellphone at Waitangi, Mr Smith has a scathing reply for anyone - Maori or Pakeha - wondering if Maori activism might be dying out amid a new age of racial understanding.

He agrees that radical protest activity has quietened down since 1999 but says it tends to crop up in 10-year cycles - the 1975 land march, the 1984 hikoi to Waitangi and One Tree Hill and Moutoa Gardens in 1994 and 1995.

"I think it would be wrong to say that protest activity has run its course and it's not going to happen again. My prediction to you would be that within the next five or six years ... people will evaluate whether things have changed [for the better]."

Mr Smith says the key factor is not treaty settlements as such but whether the lives of average Maori - measured in New Zealand's still dismal health, education, crime and prison statistics - are improving.

"If after a 10-year period of looking for hope and feeling hopeful about things the outcomes aren't delivered, it'll get angry again."

The problem with focusing on the treaty, he argues, is that Maori want development but the Government wants to settle claims and get them over with.

"They're offering money as a solution to these things. The last 10 years' experience would tell us is that money hasn't solved any of those problems. If anything, it's got Maoris into more trouble."

Mr Smith says treaty settlements have been wasted by Maori "corporate cowboys", while the lives of Maori solo parents and unemployed haven't changed "one iota".

He adds that activists have not received any of the treaty settlement money, so it is hardly likely to have influenced their views.

"The Maori protest movement didn't support the treaty settlement process, by and large hasn't taken any benefit or been compromised by the money. I don't see the treaty money taking any of the sting out of that section of the community."

He makes a final point that, contrary to popular belief, "Maori activists" do not spend 365 days a year planning their next protest anyway.

"Most activists that I know are heavily committed community development people. They're off running kura kaupapa - Maori schools - they're running welfare programmes, women's refuges ...

"The fact that they jump up on Waitangi Day shouldn't really scare you."