I BEGIN by asking does he have sympathy for Health Minister "Jim Reilly", who has been under significant pressure over proposed cuts to frontline services.
"I have immense sympathy for all my colleagues but particularly for someone like Jim Reilly, who has never been at Cabinet before. It's very tough," he says. "There seems to be a structural problem in the Department of Health going back a long time. Mary Harney came in to fix it and didn't fix it, the HSE came in and didn't fix it. It is like trying to fix a car that is running at 60kmh. It is immensely difficult and Jim Reilly has all of my sympathy."
Given Dr Reilly's charge that the Croke Park deal had made controlling his budget impossible because 70 per cent of it (pay) is "off the table," I ask Quinn for his views on the controversial agreement. For him, 80 per cent of his own budget is untouchable as it is pay and so protected by Croke Park. I also ask him does that mean the effects of the €77m cuts he needs to get in the budget will disproportionately impact on the other 20 per cent.
"Self-evidently yes," is his response.
Although an ardent fan of social partnership, Quinn says the Croke Park deal needs renegotiation and that negotiation should start now. Everything, including pay and increments, must be on the table.
He says: "We should anticipate a successor agreement and start negotiating it now. And if during the course of the negotiation we can speed up the transition between 'agreement 1' and 'agreement 2', I wouldn't rule that out. But an agreement needs two sides, so I can't speak for the other side."
He does argue that the current deal has achieved some successes, but again stresses the need for a new deal.
"We have got rid of 18,500 people and another 10,500 to go. We have been cutting back enormously -- the overall pay reduction on everybody and a whole lot of other things on productivity. There are other countries in the European Union who would give their right-eye teeth to have that sort of culture. Is it working perfectly? No. Could it be better? Probably so. Will we get a better deal? I hope so," he says.
What about incremental pay increases for public sector workers, which have continued since 2008, despite the country being in receivership?
His response is a direct call to the unions in the national interest.
"Everything needs to be looked at, but looked at in a calm and clear way. There has to be a two-way dialogue. I am on record in saying I would like to see a Croke Park II, a replacement. I believe we should start thinking now about what that should be.
"I would like them (the unions) to put everything on the table and see what we can get from it. It is a two-way exchange. Social partnership, before it got abused, was very good for this country. It worked very well, I have always been a fan of it," he says.
He also strongly rejects the notion of tearing the Croke Park deal up, saying a consensus approach is the only way forward.
He strongly criticises the Sunday Independent's "editorial agenda in attacking public sector workers", saying: "There is a certain ... and your paper has a very clear editorial agenda in attacking public servants. Unashamedly!
"Take the education field. If I was to go down the path that some have urged me to do and just disregard Croke Park and do whatever and that was to provoke a strike in education.
"That's half-a-million primary kids go to school every day Monday to Friday. In this day and age both parents work outside the home -- what logistics do you put in place in terms of child care?"
I ask why not call their bluff? Why allow yourself to be held to ransom by the unions?
"This is, again, Sunday Independent editorial speak. Your self-same paper would be the first to scream, 'fix it, sort it out, we can't have children's health and safety etc'. It is easy to say call the bluff.
"John Hume once said the trick with street politics is to know when to come in off the street. If you go on to the street and call the bluff and provoke a strike, you need to have a strategy. You need an exit strategy."
TOUGHER BUDGETS/ RENEGOTIATE TROIKA DEAL
Quinn turns his attention to the big picture and restates the difficult task facing the Government and reveals that because of a lack of economic growth Ireland is facing into tougher budgets than previously expected.
"We have to get our budget deficit down to 3 per cent. We have to reduce our spending down from 8.1 per cent to 3 per cent in two or three years. We had hoped for economic growth.
"None of us foresaw that the euro instability would go on for so long. We are the most exposed market economy in Europe because we rely more on our exports than anybody else and our exports are worldwide.
"The euro crisis has continued longer than many had expected and for the first time in 15 years the Chinese economy is retracting, rather than growing. Therefore, the balance between budget adjustment by way of reduction of expenditure and economic growth is not where we thought it would be two years ago. So that is a difficulty and the difficulty now is we are looking at programmes and we are looking at sections of spending, as distinct as reducing it by 3 per cent."
Does that mean tougher budgets?
"It does or we have to renegotiate (the terms of the ECB/EU/IMF troika) programme."
Such a startling admission is a major break in the line held to date by Michael Noonan and his Department of Finance and the Government generally.
We turn then to the ongoing fallout from comments made by Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney to this newspaper last Sunday, that Labour TDs were preparing for a snap general election. Keaveney has been roundly criticised for his "destabilising" and "irresponsible" comments and Quinn himself isn't shy about putting the boot in.
I ask him what did he think about Keaveney's comment that an election was imminent.
"Well, I think it was factually inaccurate for a start. When you assume responsibility and positions of political responsibility, health warnings come with that. You have to be cautious as your comments will be picked up miles away," he responds.
"Colm is not an irresponsible individual and is a dedicated politician. He is a former president of USI. He stood for election three times -- most people give up after the second time. He is a good politician."
But he suggests that Keaveney's comments were naive and that he has yet to grasp the seriousness of the senior role he occupies. He cites the negative story about the Government in the Financial Times last Tuesday as an example of how such comments can do great damage to the country's reputation.
"I think having become chairman of the party, he hasn't fully realised the extent of his responsibilities and how people who know nothing about how this country works, like the journalist in the Financial Times, will cast ...
"This is the chairman of the Labour Party, the second-biggest party in the Coalition. His comments were picked up and I think Colm will have learned from how his comments were picked up," he adds.
REFORMS OF SECOND-LEVEL
Quinn highly praises the primary sector but is far less complimentary about the second-level system, which he intends to radically transform.
"While our primary schools are pretty good by international standards, the same cannot be said about second-level. Primary-school teachers taught kids, secondary teachers taught subjects.
"Now the H Dip is more like the Lucky Dip and we are changing it. We are regulating it where the classical path -- you were the bright boy or girl, you went to college did an arts degree, you decided to become a teacher. You'd go back to your old school, you'd get your H dip on the nod and then you work at the same school.
"So you have this one life experience, mother of Jesus!"
He also controversially says that no teacher should ever become Minister for Education.
"One of the great strengths I have, if I can be objective and not be falsely praising myself, is that I don't think a teacher should become Minister for Education. And we have all done that, every party.
"This place has been populated by teachers. Niamh Bhreathnach, Gemma Hussey. Noel Dempsey. Mary Coughlan was a social worker, Mary Hanafin was an excellent teacher in Sion Hill. But I think as a teacher you are too close to see things."