Words Privilege

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There seems to have been a slight confusion about just what the two Sinn Fein MPs were being barred from by the Speaker last week. The Times said that their refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance meant that they would not be allowed the facilities of the House, and Betty Boothroyd used the same word: they "should not have access to the many benefits and facilities now available". Apparently this meant that the rules, as laid down by Erskine May, had to be amended; but the relevant paragraph of Erskine May says nothing about facilities. It says: "Although until he has taken the oath a Member may not sit and vote ... he is entitled to all the other privileges of a Member" (my italics).

Facilities and privileges are so different as to mean almost the opposite to each other. Facilities (from facilis, easy) are open to all, such as (for example) the usual facilities which one hopes, unless they have been vandalised, to find at railway stations and other public venues. If Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness got caught short in the House while, as one of them put it, "looking about the place", I should have thought they could get to pull the plug without any trouble from Erskine May. Privileges, on the other hand, are open only to the few to whom they are granted, and are by nature exclusive.

A privilegium (a combination of privus and lex) was a law that applied to an individual only and not to the general populace, privus being used not to mean "private" but in its other Latin sense of "peculiar" or "special", which is just what parliamentary privilege is, allowing MPs to commit a civil offence without being pulled in, or to say much what they like in the Chamber without being had for libel.

It is pointless, incidentally, to say to a well-known person: "It's a privilege to know you," when presumably quite enough people know them already.

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