Nationhood and togetherness were the key messages at a dawn service at the Treaty Grounds to mark the beginning of Waitangi Day today.

About 500 people, including both Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff, attended the service at the Treaty Grounds meeting house to mark the 170th anniversary of Waitangi Day.

The service, mostly in pleasant conditions until a shower of rain hit at the break of dawn, followed a peaceful day of events at Te Tii Marae yesterday.

It was a very early start for many today.

By 4am there were people already walking from Paihia to the treaty
grounds at Waitangi.

A half moon hung over the bay at Waitangi and a ruru - or morepork -
called as the quiet crowd made their way on to the grounds at Te
Whare Runanga this morning.

"It must be worth it," one man said.

The service began at 5am with a powhiri to welcome iwi leaders,
dimplomatic staff and Government ministers led by John
Komene.

Kaumatua Gray Theodore also addressed the congregation and led the hymn made famous by the late Sir Howard Morrison - Whakaaria mai.

Mr Komene welcomed the visitors and especially Prime Minister John Key.

"Even our Prime Minister came prepared, I know he prepared himself for
this as well," Mr Komene said.

Prime Minister John Key gave thanks to the forefathers of New Zealand
for their wisdom and spoke of Pakeha and Maori understanding
eachother's culture.

Speaking a few hours before a keynote address in which he will speak out against extremists on both sides of the race relations debate, Mr Key also gave thanks to those who signed legislation 35 years ago which led to the Treaty of Waitangi claims process.

He said this was the time "when we started to recognise that our country could be a place of great harmony where we could live together with a recognition and maturity of one another".

"Our challenges will be like so many other nations, but we know that our people can rise to that challenge. We know that our country can be even stronger."

Labour leader Phil Goff spoke of New Zealand as being founded at
Waitangi 170 years ago.

He thanked God for "a nation where largely we live together in harmony
and mutual tolerance".

Dame Sian Elias spoke of the importance of justice as one of the
underlying notions of the Treaty.

"No country came together in such beauty, with such hopes," Dame Sian said.

Also present at the service was Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, Ngapuhi elders, armed forces representatives and the diplomatic corps, who attended for the first time in 15 years.

Outside Te Whare Runanga Mr Theodore told nzherald.co.nz that the
marae was made for all the peoples of New Zealand in 1940 for the
centennial of the Treaty in 1940.

Carvers from all around the country came to add their ancestors and
tribal stories to the timbre inside the marae.

He said the marae tells the history of New Zealand - "the good, the
bad and the indifferent. So often we dress it with a bandaid but their
were faults on bothsides".

He said Te Whare Runanga was a marae that belonged to all New Zealanders.

Following the service, the crowd wandered towards the flagstaff as the
sun came up on boats moored in the bay.

A loan piper played Amazing Grace beneath the flagstaff which was
flying the United Tribes and New Zealand flag.

Yesterday, Mr Key had addressed several issues relating to Maori when he spoke at Te Tii Marae.

He said he hoped the Foreshore and Seabed Act could be repealed this year, but warned that a solution was needed which most New Zealanders could support.

Mr Key also said he wanted to improve Maori education standards so young Maori could have better job prospects.

Following the ceremony, Dr Sharples said he was happy to see so many people prepared to get up early in the morning

"It is good all the dignitaries have come back - it gives it a certain flavour."

Dignitaries have not attended Waitangi since 1995, when protesters caused an uproar over the Government's plan to cap Treaty settlements.

"Waitangi is always Waitangi whether there are 100 Tongans here or not," Dr Sharples said, referring to the controversial iwi adoption of Pacific Islanders.

Dr Sharples said next year he hoped to see the tino rangatiratanga flying at Waitangi.

"There are hundreds of flags flying around the country," he said.

He said the country still had "stuff to sort out" but Maori and Pakeha leaders were meeting to discuss some of the issues.

He said an iwi meeting yesterday discussed Treaty settlements, a constitution, and a possible new Foreshore and Seabed Act.

"The idea is going to be to work out how we share kaitiakitanga - this guardianship.

"It's got to be a form of that."

Dr Sharples said a desirable solution would involve beach access to all and the notion of "Maori spiritual [ties] to the land".

"That's the difficulty, how to interpret our traditional relationships with the land and with the law - some kind of trusteeship, you've just got to see how Maori want their mountains back.

"What are they getting physically? Nothing. But spirituality and culturally, they're getting everything - their sense of identity, their links to past battles, their links to everything, so it is quite important."

- additional reporting from NZPA