By CHERIE TAYLOR in Rotorua
A major rift has split a group of central North Island Maori seeking to settle one of the country's biggest Treaty of Waitangi claims.

Members of Ngati Whakaue, one of the largest hapu within Te Arawa, have decided to pull out of a deal that would have allowed the Government to directly negotiate about 100 treaty claims with just one group of representatives.

In April, the Government recognised the mandate of the Nga Kaihautu o Te Arawa executive council as the appropriate body to directly negotiate the claims on behalf of all Te Arawa.

The claims, speculated to be worth as much as $500 million, include hundreds of thousands of hectares of forestry land in the central North Island, as well as Taniwha Springs, Hamurana Springs, and geothermal resources.

Some hapu have complained that they are unfairly represented on the council, and in August the Waitangi Tribunal upheld some of their complaints.

While it ruled there had not been any breaches of the Treaty, it said there had been insufficient debate about how tribal groups should be represented on Te Arawa's negotiation body, and decisions had been made too hastily.

It also said questions of accountability needed to be sorted out, and Te Arawa needed to consider whether sufficient safeguards were in place to protect the interests of individual tribes.

Following three hui at Tamatekapua Marae, Ngati Whakaue has decided to withdraw from the negotiation process.

It has asked its two appointed members on the executive council, Paul Tapsell and John Kahukiwa, to resign.

Ngati Whakaue claims cluster chairman Rawiri Rangitauira said the hapu had not been kept up to speed on the negotiation process and did not feel its concerns had been seriously addressed.

"Ngati Whakaue involvement has always been on the basis it has wanted to be involved with any claim process. At the end of the day it boils down to accountability and there has been none."

Mr Rangitauira said the hapu planned to continue the process alone, and would hold another hui at Tamatekapua today to elect a working party.

"We may continue down the Waitangi Tribunal process rather than entering into direct negotiations with the Crown but each hapu will have an opportunity to be represented fairly now," he said.

Nga Kaihautu o Te Arawa chairman Eru George said it was the job of Ngati Whakaue's elected representatives to keep the hapu advised of the negotiation process, not the council.

"[The members] have received the information but I don't believe there has been the same trickle-down effect as with other hapu when things have been raised around the table," he said.

Mr George said while he was disheartened Ngati Whakaue had withdrawn from the elected process, the door was still open for any smaller hapu within the larger tribe to rejoin the mandated group.

"Based on natural expectations that Te Arawa would stand as a united front it is disappointing, but in saying that I wish to add [that] the door is always open if they change their mind," he said.

Four consultation hui will be held for Te Arawa by the executive council on the weekend of October 2 and 3.

The 2001 census shows Ngati Whakaue represent about 27 percent of Te Arawa with claims relating to the Horohoro and Whakarewarewa Forests, the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, geothermal resources and other land claims.