Britain and Ireland formally agreed Friday to suspend their intergovernmental meetings on Northern Ireland, clearing the way for the first direct talks involving Protestant and Roman Catholic political parties in 15 years.

Protestants had sought a suspension of the Anglo-Irish talks as a condition for their participation in the face-to-face meetings of the political parties as well as the governments involved in Northern Ireland.The latest talks are aimed at finding a political solution to 22 years of sectarian violence in the British-ruled province.

In London, British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke and Irish Foreign Secretary Gerald Collins announced they would not meet again until mid-July in order to let the interparty talks begin.

In a joint statement, the two governments "stressed the importance they attached to this historic opportunity to reach a new agreement on the totality of relationships, within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands."

They also ruled out the participation of any groups supporting violence to achieve their political ends. Sinn Fein, the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, and Protestant paramilitary groups have been excluded.

"The terrorists have really stepped up the campaign of violence in recent times perhaps with a view to prevent us from getting to the stage of the round-table talks," Collins told Independent Television News.