By MICHELE HEWITSON



From the dim recesses of Titewhai Harawira's garage-turned-conservatory, a hand beckons regally.



The light is fading fast. All that can be seen of Mrs Harawira from the fortress-like gates of her pink Avondale house is a burgundy cap of hair, a string of pearls and a red silk rose corsage. And that hand.



She is sitting at a table in this "quiet place", where she comes, she says, to think.

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It is a beautifully staged portrait of the wise woman in repose.



It is almost four years to the day since I last stood inside Titewhai Harawira's quiet place with its riot of subtropical plants and rows of colourful leis.



The circumstances then were very different.



In 1998 she was the woman who was, she would say, "demonised" for telling Helen Clark, then Leader of the Opposition, to sit down and shut up at Te Tii Marae on Waitangi Day. Helen Clark, reduced to tears, refused to return to Waitangi.



In 1999, Mrs Harawira appeared, hand in hand, with the Prime Minister of the day, Jenny Shipley.



Waitangi Day this year represented something of a triumph for Mrs Harawira. If she and Helen Clark were not quite at the hand-holding stage, we saw a public display of togetherness and reconciliation.



How things have changed. At least I am sincerely hoping they have. The abiding memory of that earlier visit is of standing in this garage for what seemed a very long time, waiting for Mrs Harawira to receive me, while two large dogs circled my legs sniffing and making ominous little noises in the back of their throats.



When this time I asked, finally (I didn't want her to produce them), where they were, she said, sadly: "They're dead."

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Then, bossily, "Don't talk about it." And, "I've got a rabbit now. It'll bite you."



Which was said gaily, in a bonkers sort of way. This was a joke. But I didn't ask to see it because I figured that if there is such a thing as an attack rabbit, Titewhai Harawira would own it.





Most people you speak to (although she says she has had nothing but positive feedback) are, at the very least, perplexed that the mean, dog-owning radical has somehow become the fluffy, rabbit-owning kuia who escorts Prime Ministers on to marae.



It is, if nothing else, an astonishing feat to have achieved at least the illusion of respectability. Respectability is her word. It is not one that immediately leaps to mind. "I have earned a lot of respectability by not compromising. And that respect has been with our own people. The authorities haven't always appreciated the hard line."



You can say that again. Because in the background of every conversation with Mrs Harawira - and she is as aware of it as anyone - are the ghouls of her past. Not least her 1989 conviction for assaulting a psychiatric patient.



She says, emphatically, that she regrets nothing in her past - "No. Nothing." If other people can't get over it, well "that's fine. I can accept that. But I would like people to also put up their hands and say they may have been wrong".



The remarkable thing (or one of them) about Mrs Harawira is that she, who has never put up her hand and said she was wrong, has obtained a sort of aura of authority - now seemingly accepted by authority. The machinations behind the Waitangi Day scenes must have been fascinating.



Mrs Harawira says she began "the serious work for Waitangi" a week before the day. She says she did this on behalf of Ngapuhi, once she understood that Helen Clark's return to Waitangi would not involve celebrations at Te Tii Marae.



She went to a number of meetings, came home to the "quiet place", and thought about a letter she says Ngapuhi drafted to the Prime Minister and the Governor-General saying: "If you walk past Te Tii, and you walk past Ngapuhi, you are not welcome in Ngapuhi."



She says she was fed up with "being used as a reason why Helen Clark should not come here".



She has long said that Helen Clark was set up, was wrongly advised.



And that she, in turn, has been the one set up "for a lot of people to poke fingers at you and make snide remarks".



What is interesting is that Mrs Harawira should give a toss. She doesn't, on a personal level, she maintains. "The bigger picture for me is the mana of Ngapuhi. The whole issue of the treaty is buried in the personality thing."



fxdrop 3,60 W HICH should have a few people choking into their morning coffee, since the whole point of Mrs Harawira is the sheer force of her personality.



What she really doesn't give a toss about is how she is seen. "It does not worry me."



Although, "sometimes it's nice to know what people actually think, 'Hello, hello, she's there walking with the Government again'."



But if anyone thinks that all she does is pop up at Waitangi once a year, get real, she'll say. She is on the New Zealand Maori Council, has spent 30 years writing letters, making submissions. There has been no transformation, no reinvention: "I've actually been very close to people in power many years now. People haven't known it."



All she will say about her meeting with Helen Clark is that they did meet. That they didn't have a cup of tea: "We had a discussion." She won't say where.



It was not agreed at that meeting who would escort Helen Clark on to the marae. But "that decision was mine from the beginning, and it never changed".



Yes, she says, there were discussions on the day, "it came up in discussions with individuals, but I'm not into individuals. The collective decision was that it should happen".



This is one of the joys of talking to Titewhai Harawira: she is completely impervious to her own contradictions. Like royalty, she will not be accused of them, let alone admit to them.



Asking why it should have been her on the Prime Minister's arm earns a pure Titewhai look - one seldom seen in ladies wearing pearls and a corsage. "You name someone more qualified than me to do it."



There is a lot she will not admit to. Mellowing - "Never." That she has changed her ways - "Meet me on a protest about something else, man. You'd wonder what struck you." Her age - "90." (She is in her late 60s.)



She is still stroppy, but I'm not so sure that she isn't trying to reinvent her public persona.



She shows me a letter she sent to Helen Clark dated May 2, 2000. In it she says, " ... I willingly lay down the olive branch if that will help move this matter forward." She writes, in the context of believing that Helen Clark was wrongly advised, "I am genuinely sorry that you were so obviously hurt ... "



There is a little sting in the tail: " ... I will be watching what your Government does with guarded expectation."



She says Helen Clark did not respond, that it was the sending of the letter that was important to her, not a reply or lack of one. She certainly makes no big deal of it.



As I am leaving, she says, "Write it up nice."



Plenty of people say it. I just cannot imagine the Titewhai Harawira I met four years ago saying it. For one thing, she would have assumed that you were too intimidated to do anything else.



But here's another clue about how a 60-something radical turned prime ministerial escort might have changed. The rabbit's name is Fluffy.